Myanmar coup leader considers shift to electoral system favoured by military

Myanmar’s army chief said on Monday that he is considering changing the country’s electoral system from the existing majoritarian model and toward a form of Proportional Representation (PR). 

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who ousted the country’s elected civilian administration in a coup on February 1, made the remarks during a meeting in Naypyitaw with members of his military council, according to state-run media.

In accordance with the country’s military-drafted 2008 Constitution, Myanmar currently uses First Past the Post (FPTP), a system in which the candidate who receives the most votes is the winner of the parliamentary seat in question.

Min Aung Hlaing said that the PR system would be “all-inclusive” and allow for constituents’ voices to be better represented. 

“It is necessary to consider the Proportional Representation—PR—system with all participants. It is necessary to amend the way representatives are elected and the election system. During its tenure, the government will make these amendments by coordinating with everyone,” Min Aung Hlaing said during the meeting.

Monday was not the first time the military council has expressed its preference for the system, which critics suspect would be designed in their favour rather than in the interests of diversity, which the army has long attempted to subjugate. 

One month after the coup, the chair of the junta-appointed election commission asked political parties to provide input on replacing the existing electoral system with one based on PR. The request came after military-backed parties called for the change during a meeting boycotted by the country’s other major parties. 

Aung Kyaw Zan, an ethnic Rakhine politician, told Myanmar Now that it would be difficult to implement the PR system in the current political context. He noted that PR is not a practice accommodated by the 2008 Constitution, which is still adhered to by the coup regime. The charter was however, abolished by the National Unity Government, a body formed by elected MPs who were unable to take their seats in parliament following the coup. 

“The Constitution was not drafted considering the PR system, but rather FPTP, which allows the winner to take all. It is not clear whether the electoral system should be amended or replaced after the charter is repealed,” Aung Kyaw Zan said. 

“[Any change] should be in accordance with what the public wants. It could only be done after official political parties representing the public had discussed the issue together,” noting that all political parties in the country should be able to take part in such a process. 

During a press conference in Naypyitaw in September 2019, military proxy party the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) vowed to push for the shift to a PR system in parliament if it won the majority of seats in the 2020 election, which it did not. 

The USDP faced a humiliating defeat in 2020, securing just 33 seats in total across both legislative houses. The military, along with its party allies, accused the National League for Democracy (NLD)—which won by a landslide—of committing electoral fraud, even though neither local nor international observers found credible evidence of such claims. 

Demonstrators hold placards reading ‘We don’t need a re-election’ during a protest against the military coup in Yangon on February 26 (EPA-EFE)

‘Not ready for PR’

​​Sai Nyunt Lwin, chair of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), one of the most prominent of the country’s more than 90 parties, said Myanmar was not ready to put a PR system into practice, 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 Union-level seats in 2020, the third highest electoral victory, following the NLD and USDP. The SNLD also won 26 seats in the Shan State regional parliament. 

“To my knowledge, some parties are not in a position where they are able to win enough votes for a seat and have demanded [the adoption of PR by the military council] so that they also can secure seats in parliament,” Sai Nyunt Lwin said.

He added that the military might be considering acceding to the request of those parties that did not 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 disenfranchises ethnic voters and perpetuates centralised rule. 

PR—if adopted within a federal democracy, rather than under a coup regime—could address “structural limitations which favor larger parties,” Nai Banya Mon of the Federal Affairs and Policy Centre wrote in an analysis immediately following the 2020 election. 

He argued that the practices that reinforce such limitations in Myanmar included gerrymandering; displacement caused by civil war, militarisation, land grabbing and natural resource exploitation; an election commission beholden to the ruling government; and the need for a new national charter which finally removes the military from politics. 

“If ethnic people want to build a genuine federal Union, they must change the existing 2008 Constitution or draw up a new federal, democratic Constitution. A new free and fair voting system must also be adopted that reflects and embraces the diversity of the country,” he wrote at the time. 

Parliamentary debate

The national debate surrounding the electoral system dates back to the NLD’s widespread victory in the 1990 election, but has been strategically raised in parliament since 2012, when candidates from the NLD again won nearly all the seats they contested in the by-election that year. 

Aung Zin, a Lower House lawmaker from the USDP ally the National Democratic Force (NDF), submitted a proposal to parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann at that time to discuss a move toward PR. 

Along with a small number of like-minded political parties, NDF chair Than Nyein also sent the election commission a formal recommendation regarding the adoption of the PR system. But the process—from both inside and out of the parliament—was unsuccessful. 

The NDF again submitted a proposal in parliament urging a change to PR in 2014 when the NLD prepared to compete nationally in the 2015 general election. Both parliamentary houses were dominated by USDP lawmakers at that time after the party secured a majority in the previous 2010 election, which was boycotted by the main opposition party—the NLD—and described by observers as being neither free nor fair.

While the then-ruling USDP and the NDF were in favour of the system, NLD lawmakers largely opposed the PR system as their party expected to land a majority win in the 2015 election.  

The legislature’s military-appointed MPs—who make up 25 percent of parliament in accordance with the Constitution—stood with the USDP and the NDF. 

The motion was supported by 18 MPs and opposed by another 18. Despite the formation of a commission to discuss the issue, the push was rejected. Citing a recommendation by the Constitutional Tribunal, parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann concluded the debate by declaring that FPTP was the only electoral system that was in line with the Constitution.

Nearly seven years later in 2021, the military chief made clear his intention to implement the system change after appointing himself head of Myanmar’s so-called “Caretaker Government,” officially annulling the results of the 2020 election.  

While Min Aung Hlaing has repeatedly promised—since staging the coup—to hold another election in accordance with the Constitution and transfer power to the winning party, many major political figures doubt the sincerity of his pledge. 

Demonstrators holding portraits of detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and flags for her NLD party take part in an anti-coup protest in Yangon on February 7 (EPA-EFE)

‘Safeguarding’ the Constitution

The coup leader himself has admitted there are shortcomings in the same military-drafted 2008 charter that he regularly lauds. However, he continues to claim it earned the approval of more than 92 percent of eligible voters in Myanmar more than a decade ago, a figure which observers have dismissed as a fabrication. 

The Constitution was officially adopted after a nationwide 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 while the country was dominated by another senior general, Than Shwe.  

Min Aung Hlaing has often described the military as “safeguarding” the Constitution, but in the days prior to the coup, he noted that the charter could also be repealed. 

His seizure of power directly preceded what would have been his mandatory retirement from the military in July, when he turned 65.  

After the coup, he amended the law that put a limit on the army chief’s age, making himself the de facto leader indefinitely.

At the time of reporting, 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 continue to be detained in prisons across the country for resisting military rule. 

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