Electoral reform debate in Burma

Burma’s parliament is currently debating electoral reform ahead of next year’s election, as part of a wider constitutional debate.

Burma, which had been ruled by a military dictatorship since 1962, has recently embarked on a path of democratisation. Since a new constitution was passed in 2008, a lot of progress has been made, including the freeing of most political prisoners and expansion of civil liberties: people have become far freer to criticise the government and some public demonstrations are being permitted, something completely unknown just ten years ago.

Burma’s current constitution came into force in a 2008 referendum. Consequently, legislative elections were held in 2010 for three-quarters of each house, the other one-quarter being appointed by the military. In the House of Nationalities, the upper house, each state or region* elects twelve members, with the lower house representing by population, for a total of 168/224 and 330/440 seats respectively (elected/total); all elections were by single seat plurality. The election was not considered free and fair, and was boycotted by the opposition National League for Democracy, whose leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was still under house arrest at the time. The military government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) captured an outright majority in both houses (over two-thirds of all elected seats).

Under the new constitution, the president is elected indirectly, with the military and both houses of parliament each having one vote. After the 2010 election, USDP leader and incumbent premier in the military government, Thein Sein, was elected president, taking office in 2011 and forming the country’s first fully civilian government under the new constitution. Though many expected the new government to act as a proxy for the military and for the new parliament to act as a rubber stamp, both have shown surprising independence and commitment to democratisation; even military-appointed MPs aren’t always voting as a bloc.

In 2012, more than forty by-elections were held (on a single day), mostly to fill seats vacated by MPs appointed to Sein’s cabinet. With Suu Kyi having been released, the NLD decided to take part. Despite continuing irregularities, the by-elections were regarded as freer than the general election two years prior. Almost all seats were won by the NLD, with Suu Kyi winning a huge majority in her own constituency. The NLD has confirmed that it will contest the next general election, scheduled for October next year.

A few months ago, an electoral reform proposal introducing PR was passed in the upper house, and it has been debated in the lower house since then. Unsurprisingly, the proposal is backed by the USDP, which can expect a near-wipeout next year if first-past-the-post is kept, as indicated by the by-elections. This would replicate the result of the 1990 election (ultimately rejected by the junta) where the NLD won just shy of 80% of seats on 53% of the vote.

The NLD, probably for the very same reason, strongly opposes PR, at times offering arguments as silly as that PR favours large parties while suppressing small ones. At best, they’ve called for a referendum on the topic. Many from ethnic minorities are also opposed, with some taking to the streets to demonstrate against the proposal. The opposition of minorities is perhaps surprising considering the nature of PR, but in Burma most ethnic minorities are geographically concentrated and so benefit from FPTP.

The exact reform on the table is not yet clear, as the the lower house seems to have abandoned the original proposal, appointing a special commission, which came up with a number of alternatives. Besides PR, the commission put forward a number of hybrids, some of which envisage different systems for different regions of the country, with the ethnic states to retain a more majoritarian system. Either way, considering the USDP’s parliamentary majority and the assured support of military appointees, it seems all but certain that some change will be made by the time of next year’s election.

* Burma has 7 ‘states’, where ethnic minorities, such as the Shan and Karen, form majorities, and 7 ‘regions’, where the Bamar majority is dominant.

7 thoughts on “Electoral reform debate in Burma

  1. Thanks to JD for this post. Comments originally had been turned off inadvertently, but the comment form should be open now.

    So I might as well comment: I would caution that we don’t know if Burma is “embarked on a path of democratization” because such a path really can be assessed only in retrospect. I read somewhere in recent days (possibly in the Economist) that there is even some doubt whether the scheduled election will go ahead.


    • Well, I certainly did not mean to discount the possibility of reversal – only that some progress has been made, at least for the time being.


  2. > “at times offering arguments as silly as that PR favours large parties while suppressing small ones”

    Weird though this may sound, if Burmese politicians are looking at India then this may actually be the case for many small parties IF they have a caste and/or ethnic and/or religious base that’s highly regionally concentrated. if your parliament has (say) 50 seats, and your group is only (say) 1% of the population but the members all live in or around the same city or province (and the legislature interprets the allowable variation from the population average as flexibly as India does), you might get 1 MP out of 100. But a PR system with a quota of 2% might lock you out. A fortiori if there’s a super-imposed threshold in the 3% to 5% range, or medium-member electoral regions.


    • It would be hard for India to demonstrate anything about PR, but FPTP has indeed led to the election of regionally-concentrated minorities in India as well as Burma. So indeed, PR might to some extent suppress existing small parties (and that is indeed the reason for much of the opposition). But at the same time, it would prevent a massive NLD landslide, while opening the arena to new small parties that are not so regionally concentrated. And so long as allocation is not nationwide, and/or there is no nationwide threshold, the impact on minority parties would be relatively small.

      I have had a hard time finding out about the specific details about the options on the table, but I would be very surprised if they envisaged something like a nationwide district with, say, a 5% threshold. Far more logical, acceptable and probably also in line with the constitution would be districting along region/state divisions with a threshold (if any) being applied at the district level.


  3. The military appears to be using the opportunity of the 2021 coup to finally implement this proposal. This article suggests that PR will be in place for the proposed elections in 2021. The effects of this would be presumably the same as they would have been in 2015 – turning a complete wipeout for the USDP into a substantial foothold in the legislature, potentially letting them form a government even if the NLD contests the election.


    • Thanks for the update.

      It is so strange to read passages like this:
      “Although PR can prevent one-party authoritarianism, it has its own disadvantages, such as a negative impact on the representation of ethnic political parties in parliament, as parliamentary seats are shared according to the percentage of total votes.”

      I get where the author is coming from. Many of the ethnic parties have strong local concentration, and thus can win under FPTP (as discussed earlier in this thread). But still, unless it is adopted with a high nationwide threshold, PR in general should be pretty good for ethnic parties!

      Alas, such important details are left to the imagination.

      In any case, I suppose the NLD is not too likely to contest any time soon.


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