The Burmese military chief said on Monday he was considering changing the country’s electoral system from the existing majority model to a form of proportional representation (PR).
Major General Min Aung Hlaing, who toppled the country’s elected civilian administration in a February 1 coup, made the remarks during a meeting in Naypyitaw with members of his military council, according to the official media.
In accordance with the country’s 2008 Constitution, drafted by the military, Myanmar currently uses one-round majority voting (SMU), a system in which the candidate with the most votes is the winner of the parliamentary seat in question.
Min Aung Hlaing said the public relations system would be “comprehensive” and allow voters’ voices to be better represented.
âThere is a need to consider the system of proportional representation – PR – with all the participants. There is a need to change the way representatives are elected and the electoral system. During his tenure, the government will make these changes by coordinating with everyone, âMin Aung Hlaing said at the meeting.
Monday was not the first time the military council has expressed a preference for the system, which critics suspect is designed in their favor rather than in the interest of diversity, which the military has long tried to subjugate. .
A month after the coup, the chairman of the junta-appointed electoral commission asked political parties for their views on replacing the existing electoral system with one based on PR. The demand came after military-backed parties called for change in a meeting boycotted by the country’s other major parties.
Aung Kyaw Zan, a politician from the Rakhine ethnicity, told Myanmar Now that it would be difficult to implement the proportional representation system in the current political context. He noted that PR is not a practice accommodated by the 2008 Constitution, which the coup regime still adheres to. The charter was, however, abolished by the government of national unity, a body formed by elected deputies who were unable to sit in parliament following the coup.
âThe Constitution was not written with the PR system in mind, but rather the FPTP, which allows the winner to take it all. It is not clear whether the electoral system should be changed or replaced after the charter is repealed, âsaid Aung Kyaw Zan.
“[Any change] must be in accordance with what the public wants. This could only be done after the official political parties representing the public discussed the issue together, ânoting that all political parties in the country should be able to participate in such a process.
At a press conference in Naypyitaw in September 2019, the military proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), pledged to push for a shift to a representative system. proportional to parliament if he won a majority of seats in the 2020 election, which he did not. .
The USDP suffered a humiliating defeat in 2020, securing just 33 total seats in both legislative chambers. The military, along with its party allies, accused the National League for Democracy (NLD) – which won a landslide victory – of committing electoral fraud, even though neither local nor international observers found credible evidence for such claims.
“Not ready for public relations”
Sai Nyunt Lwin, chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), one of the largest of the country’s more than 90 parties, said Myanmar was not ready to implement a system proportional representation, citing the limitations of the 2008 Constitution and an instability that was present even before the military coup.
His party won a total of 15 seats at the Union level in 2020, the third highest electoral victory, after the NLD and USDP. The SNLD also won 26 seats in the Shan State regional parliament.
âTo my knowledge, some parties are not able to win enough votes for a seat and have asked [the adoption of PR by the military council] so that they can also get seats in parliament, âsaid Sai Nyunt Lwin.
He added that the military may consider granting the request of parties that failed to win seats in previous elections.
Opposed to domination by both the military and the NLD, many ethnic legal and political advocates have called for structural changes to the FPTP voting system, which they say denies ethnic voters the right to vote and perpetuates the centralized power.
PR – if adopted in a federal democracy rather than under a coup regime – could remedy “structural limitations that favor large parties,” wrote Nai Banya Mon of the Federal Affairs and Policy Center in analysis immediately after the 2020 elections.
He argued that practices that reinforce these limitations in Myanmar included gerrymandering; displacement caused by civil war, militarization, land grabbing and exploitation of natural resources; an electoral commission accountable to the government in power; and the need for a new national charter which finally withdraws the military from politics.
âIf the ethnic groups want to build a true federal union, they must change the existing 2008 constitution or write a new federal and democratic constitution. A new free and fair voting system must also be adopted that reflects and embraces the diversity of the country, âhe wrote at the time.
The national debate around the electoral system dates back to the widespread victory of the NLD in the 1990 elections, but has been strategically raised in parliament since 2012, when the NLD candidates again won nearly every seat they contested in. of that year’s by-election.
Aung Zin, a lower house member of USDP ally the National Democratic Force (NDF), at the time submitted a proposal to Speaker of Parliament Shwe Mann to discuss a move towards PR.
With a small number of like-minded political parties, NDF chairman Than Nyein also sent the electoral commission a formal recommendation regarding the adoption of the proportional representation system. But the process, both inside and outside parliament, has failed.
The NDF re-submitted a proposal to parliament calling for a PR change in 2014, when the NLD prepared to compete nationally in the 2015 general election. Both parliamentary chambers were dominated by lawmakers from the USDP at the time after the party won a majority in the previous 2010 election, which was boycotted by the main opposition party, the NLD, and described by observers as neither free nor fair.
While the then-ruling USDP and NDF were in favor of the system, NLD lawmakers largely opposed the proportional representation system, as their party expected to win a majority in the 2015 election.
Military-appointed legislators – who represent 25 percent of parliament according to the Constitution – sided with the USDP and NDF.
The motion was supported by 18 MPs and opposed by 18 others. Despite the formation of a committee to discuss the matter, the push was rejected. Citing a recommendation from the Constitutional Court, Speaker of Parliament Shwe Mann concluded the debate by declaring that the SMU was the only constitutionally compliant electoral system.
Almost seven years later, in 2021, the military leader made it clear his intention to implement the system change after being appointed head of Myanmar’s so-called “interim government”, officially rescinding the results of the 2020 elections.
While Min Aung Hlaing has repeatedly promised – since the coup – to hold another election in accordance with the Constitution and hand over power to the winning party, many prominent politicians doubt the sincerity of his promise.
“Safeguard” the Constitution
The coup leader himself admitted there were loopholes in the same 2008 charter drafted by the military he regularly praises. However, he continues to claim he won the approval of more than 92% of eligible voters in Myanmar more than a decade ago, a figure that observers have dismissed as a fabrication.
The Constitution was officially adopted after a national referendum was held in May 2008, just days after Cyclone Nargis devastated the country. Some 100,000 people were killed in the disaster, which occurred as the country was dominated by another high-ranking general, Than Shwe.
Min Aung Hlaing has often referred to the military as “protecting” the Constitution, but in the days leading up to the coup, he noted that the charter could also be repealed.
His takeover directly preceded what would have been his mandatory retirement from the military in July, at the age of 65.
After the coup, he amended the law that limited the age of the army chief, thus becoming the de facto leader indefinitely.
At the time of writing, more than 1,000 people had been killed by Min Aung Hlaing’s armed forces since the February coup and more than 5,800 people were still being held in prisons across the country for to have resisted the military regime.