Myanmar’s coup regime has stepped up efforts to switch the country’s electoral system to Proportional Representation (PR), which would make it easier for smaller parties to win parliamentary seats and would therefore benefit the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Last year’s election, in which the now ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) humiliated the USDP, was held under the First Past the Post (FPTP) system, meaning that in each constituency the candidate with the most votes won a parliamentary seat while the losing candidates’ votes were discarded.
Under the junta’s plan, seats in parliament would be given to parties based on the percentage of the vote they received nationwide. In both of the previous two elections, the NLD was awarded a percentage of seats that was higher than the percentage it secured of the national vote.
The junta’s repeated promises to hold new elections in the wake of its February 1 coup have been widely derided by pro-democracy activists, who say any poll held under the military’s authority will be illegitimate and that the NLD should be unconditionally returned to power.
Many of the junta’s opponents, including the shadow National Unity Government, have committed to overthrowing the dictatorship with armed resistance, strikes and boycotts.
Since early June, the junta has consistently promoted the PR system in its newspapers. Earlier this month its election commission released a book touting the benefits of the system titled Studying the Legislative Parliamentary Elections (Part 1).
The commission advertised the book as “the answer to questions such as which PR system would be the best to implement in an election and what kind of an election should be held under the 2008 Constitution.”
The book is a must-have for candidates and parties planning to take part in upcoming elections, the commission said.
Commission member Khin Maung Oo said at a press conference in Naypyitaw late last month that the majority of political parties have agreed to switch to the PR system, though he did not specify how many.
“We have prepared the necessary laws, principles, manuals and guides in order to be able to implement the plan right after the UEC has discussed with the political parties and made the decision,” he said. He added that a PR system is not against the 2008 Constitution.
The commission, led by the former general Thein Soe, held several meetings with political parties in late February and in May to discuss the PR system, according to representatives of parties that attended.
Most parties that attended won very few votes in the previous election, were aligned with the military, or both.
Sai Aik Pao, chair of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), said he attended the meetings but did not say anything.
“They talked mainly about the PR system. I think there will be another meeting at the end of this month,” he said. “We have to listen to them explain about it. We can’t decide whether or not we would accept it without listening to their explanation.”
On Saturday, Lieutenant General Win Bo Shein talked about the PR system in detail during a meeting with the National Solidarity and Peace Negotiation Committee (NSPNC), which some political parties attended, BBC Burmese reported.
Coup leader Min Aung Hlaing has been vocal about his desire to change to a PR system.
He said during a meeting in Naypyitaw with members of his military council in August that a PR system would be “all-inclusive” and allow for constituents’ voices to be better represented.
“It is necessary to amend the way representatives are elected and the election system,” he said. “During its tenure, the government will make these amendments by coordinating with everyone.”
It is not the first time the military and its supporters have touted a PR system. In 2012, after the NLD won nearly every seat it contested in by-elections a Lower House lawmaker from the National Democratic Force (NDF), a USDP ally, submitted a proposal in parliament to discuss a move towards PR.
The NDF’s chair Than Nyein also sent the election commission a formal recommendation to adopt the PR system. The NDF again submitted a proposal in the USDP-dominated parliament urging a change to PR in 2014.
While the then-ruling USDP and the NDF were in favour of the system, NLD lawmakers largely opposed it, with their party expected to land a majority in the 2015 election.
NLD MPs submitted an objection to the proposal at the Constitutional Tribunal. The NDF’s efforts failed, and then parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann concluded the debate by citing the tribunal and declaring that FPTP was the only electoral system that was in line with the Constitution.
Now that the military council has complete control over the election commission and the constitutional tribunal, there are no longer any hurdles for Min Aung Hlaing to implement PR.
Khin Maung Oo, the election commission member, said the FPTP system would still be used in Myanmar’s six self-administered regions and 29 constituencies for ethnic affairs minister positions in the next election.
“We will still abide by the electoral laws included in the 2008 Constitutions in implementing the PR system and we will not change the number of MPs,” he said at last month’s press conference.
The PR system has also faced opposition from several ethnic parties. The Zomi Congress for Democracy party’s secretary general, Pu Gin Kam Lian, said he opposed the system before on the grounds it would be difficult to implement in Chin State.
The party would now take its lead on whether to support PR from the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA), a coalition of 15 ethnic political parties, he added.
“We have to decide depending on the UNA’s decision. And we still don’t know what the NLD is going to do. All of us including the NLD agreed to boycott the 2010 election, but we gave our support when the NLD said it would compete in the 2012 by-election,” he said.
“We can’t rush the decision now as we don’t know what’s going to happen next,” he added.
Sai Aik Pao said the SNLD also opposed PR under the USDP government. “We objected to the idea back then because we didn’t understand it fully. We still cannot make a decision now as it’s still a quite new idea for us,” he said.
A founding member of the New Myanmar Foundation election monitoring group, who asked not to be named, said it appeared the junta wanted to hold an election soon, particularly as it had used false claims of voter fraud to justify its coup.
“It appears that the ASEAN is also pressuring them as they used voter fraud as an excuse,” she said, referring to the ten-member bloc of Southeast Asian countries that Myanmar is a member of. “So it seems that they will be holding another election very soon.”