Guest Column

If Myanmar Voters Want Different Results, They Need to Elect New Leaders

By Yaw Bawm Mangshang 20 October 2020

Myanmar is scheduled to have its third general election since 2010 on Nov. 8, and 94 political parties are registered to compete. Now is a time when voters naturally start considering which party deserves their vote. The online and offline debates, discussions and conversations among families, friends and members of different political camps are getting hot as political parties intensify their efforts to win coveted votes.

The key question here is: Which party or parties do voters want to run the government or Hluttaw/Parliament in the next five years? Needless to say, the quality of governance will depend on the qualities of the people and parties that voters elect.

Voters need to give special consideration to selecting candidates or parties because the workings of government depend ultimately on the people or parties in charge, according to “American State Politics: An Introduction” by V.O. Key (1956). Key adds that the individuals that voters elect and the circumstances voters create determine the nature of popular government.

In considering the upcoming election, it is important to examine both the national (Union) level and subnational (State/Region) level.

The Union Hluttaw (Union Parliament) is comprised of 664 MPs. The Pyithu Hluttaw (Lower House) has 440 MPs, inclusive of 110 Tatmadaw MPs, and the Amyotha Hluttaw (Upper House) has 224 MPs, inclusive of 56 Tatmadaw MPs. Of these 664 seats, 207 seats (31 percent) come from the seven states.

The number of seats from the seven states will be even smaller in the next term of government because on Oct. 16, the Union Election Commission (UEC) announced the cancellation of the vote in areas that are largely strongholds of the ethnic minority parties, arguing that a free and fair election would be impossible due to security concerns.

A total of 56 (out of the country’s total 330) townships in Rakhine, Kachin, Kayin, Mon and Shan states as well as some parts of Bago Region are affected by that decision. In Kachin State for instance, 192 village tracts in 11 (out of 18) townships will lose the right to vote. This writer’s hometown will also lose the right to vote even though the area has been peaceful during the last six years and has the presence of all government administrative apparatuses.

Realistically, big parties (Bamar ethnic-led parties to be exact) will continue to dominate the Union Hluttaw because of population size and the design of the electoral map. As a result, under the 2008 Constitution, ethnic political parties cannot be much of a force at the Union level even if they were to win every constituency in their respective states.

However, ethnic political parties can make a difference if they can win at the subnational level and can control state Hluttaw (state parliaments), acting as a check on state governments under the existing regulatory framework. For instance, the Rakhine State Hluttaw voted to strip the state municipal affairs minister of his duties in January 2018. The Kayah State Hluttaw successfully passed a motion to impeach the state chief minister in September 2020. Strategically, subnational parliaments should be the focus of local ethnic political parties and local voters.

It is time to assess Myanmar’s very centralized system of governance and its impact in the country. One can argue that centralized governance has been exercised in Myanmar since the 1960s and the present condition of the country is the result of such a centralized system.

More specifically, the country has been ruled by one ethnic group–the Bamar—since independence in 1948. Since the re-introduction of elections in 2010, the Bamar ethnic group has continued to win the right to govern the country. People have lived under the government led by Bamar-led political parties, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the National League for Democracy (NLD).

However, the country’s fundamental problems remain unaddressed except for the development of some roads and bridges and liberalization of the telecom sector. The gap between rich and poor continues to grow.

Due to the existing regulatory framework, the system of centralized governance will remain in place regardless of who wins the upcoming general election. Just the same, the change of people or party running the system and controlling the Hluttaw could make a difference. Therefore, it is time to reconsider who is going to be in charge.

If we (as voters) want different results from what we are getting, we have to try different approaches. That means changing the people or party that run the government and Parliament.

Voting for the same people or party and expecting something different would qualify for Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

Having learned a lesson from previous election defeats in 2010 and 2015, many local/ethnic-based parties have agreed to merge due to pressure from their respective communities across the country. In other words, they (the merged parties) have listened to public opinion. Now the respective communities have a moral responsibility to reward them in the form of support at the polls.

To give the local (merged) parties a chance to prove themselves in running state governments and parliaments, consolidation of local votes is required.

Unfortunately, not all political parties can be represented in the government and Parliament at the same time because of the first-past-the-post (sometimes formally called single-member plurality) electoral system, in which winner takes all.

Under that system, the splitting of votes is the greatest threat to all local political parties. To avoid that threat, voters should reward the merged party because their merger has been in response to public opinion.

Naturally, a local party with local people can understand local needs and contexts better than distant parties. Strong local institutions, including local political parties, will be necessary in the future federal union that all major political parties claim to be striving for.

Local political parties have waited for 10 years now. Shouldn’t they be given the opportunity to run their next state government and Hluttaw?

Yaw Bawm Mangshang is a Yangon-based, independent political observer. His views are his own.

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