YANGON / NAYPYIDAW — The stage is set for what could become a highly argumentative and perhaps volatile issue in Myanmar’s politics. The issue at hand is whether to change the current electoral system. The question is, why so much noise about electoral systems?
There could be several answers, but certainly it is worth noting that election outcomes help determine how people will live their lives in the next five years and beyond. Therefore, any change to an electoral system directly impacts the people, especially in a country as ethnically diverse as Myanmar. So when ethnic parties unite to oppose any move to change the current system, is it reasonable? They would certainly say so, and did, in recent conversations that I had with ethnic leaders in Naypyidaw and Yangon.
Let us not forget that people’s lives are intertwined with politics, nowhere so more than in a country that, until 2011, had been under the rule of a military junta since 1962. So when ethnic parties feel threatened by a move to bring about changes to the current system of conducting elections, some apprehension is understandable. Not only is the Proportional Representation (PR) system alien to voters, it does not guarantee representation to the ethnic groups as does the current First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system.
Most ethnic political parties’ representatives ask the same question: Why should we not be worried? Our population in many states is less than 1 percent of the total population of the country, meaning that under a PR system, we may not get the minimum votes (or reach the required “threshold”) to get a seat.
Ethnic political leaders argue that the distribution of seats in the Upper House is already uneven, and with a new system, ethnic representation could be completely wiped out.
All the ethnic parties are convinced that the “vote share” formula applied to a PR system does not help ethnic parties, with bigger parties like the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) or the National League for Democracy (NLD) eating into the vote share of the smaller ethnic parties. “Representatives of these parties would not represent the true aspirations and needs of the ethnic community,” one ethnic leader told me.
Generally, most of the criticisms of the PR system are based around its tendency to give rise to coalition governments and a fragmented party system. The arguments most often cited against PR are that it leads to destabilization of political parties and gives rise to factionalism.
In Myanmar, an added element that cannot be dismissed is the identity politics of ethnicity.
Ethnic people want to choose their own candidate to be their MP and they want to choose people they know. “Wa people want to focus on Wa issues and likewise all other ethnic groups,” explains Sai Poung Nap, general secretary of the Wa Democratic Party. He is of the opinion that the PR system under consideration would prevent this from happening, especially if bigger parties try to play the coalition card during elections. Furthermore, he believes that the system is “very ambiguous” and would split votes, effectively “defeating the actual meaning of proportional representation.”
Citing as example the areas in Myanmar inhabited by certain ethnic groups and categorized as “self-administrative zones,” Sai Poung Nap quips, “No one knows what to do with these areas.” On a more serious note, he explains that the votes of all the groups that make up these self-administered zones may not even amount to the minimum votes that a PR system usually prescribes.
What makes the whole thing more complex is that, as laid out under the current legal framework, each ethnic group is allowed to have its own representative in the regional parliaments if its population tallies to 0.1 percent or more in any given constituency. However, the competition then would be among members of the same ethnic groups but contesting from different political parties or as an independent candidate.
Given the complexities of the PR system, there is no reason to scoff at the reactions of the ethnic parties. It goes without saying that the current system is not perfect, but talking about a PR overhaul, ethnic groups say their fundamental goal is under threat: “We want to be ruled by our own people and that’s what people wanted before and now,” as Aung Tein Myint of the Karen State Democracy and Development Party (KSDDP) puts it.
In my talks with ethnic groups, serious concern about the push for PR persists. People in the ethnic belts are convinced that direct elections under the current system are much better suited to representing all ethnic groups.
Detractors of FPTP also lament its tendency to produce “personality-driven politics.”
“This cannot be helped, at least for now, so we cannot just change over to a new system which will be unfair to everyone, especially the voters,” is how Dr. Kyaw Shein, an Upper House MP of the All Mon Region Democracy Party (AMRDP), puts it. He is certain that ethnic parties are united on the issue and that after the current parliamentary session, “we will go back to our people and talk about it.”
What will be the possible fallout? No one knows and perhaps only time will tell. What is clear is that no system can work if those that are in it are not sincere and don’t make it work in a manner that will be acceptable to everyone.
B.D. Prakash is a scholar and expert on political and election related affairs in Asia. He prefers to use his penname and is currently based in Bangkok, Thailand.