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'Federalism is no longer a taboo subject and it no longer appears to be a distant prospect in Myanmar'

In my writings a decade ago, I predicted that federalism was a distant objective for Myanmar. I supported federalism but given the political and conflict conditions then I was not wrong to make such as assumption.

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Propaganda poster for the Kachin Independence Army.

There is not a conversation or discussion on the Myanmar peace process that does not include two words: “trust” and “distrust”. As far as the peace process is concerned, no matter who speaks on any given occasion, the two words are either mentioned in passing or featured prominently.

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The timing was conspiciously reminiscent of old junta tactics. Two days before newly appointed UN special human rights rapporteur Ms Yanghee Lee wrapped up her first visit to Myanmar with a highly publicised news conference at Yangon International Airport on July 26, the government extended its hand to Medecins Sans Frontieres.

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It has been a busy few days for the Union Government. On July 24, Medecins Sans Frontières was invited to resume operations in Rakhine State. Two days later at the end of her first to Myanmar as UN special rapporteur on human rights, Ms Yanghee Lee issued a statement which included criticism of the situation in Rakhine State and the direction of the reform process, which the government countered in a public response.

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So several years ago, I told a friend, a well-educated exiled activist, that opposition groups must put themselves in the position of the military regime if they wished to bring about a negotiated settlement. I made this suggestion because the opposition groups to which he belonged had called for political dialogue with the military government.

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The irony of the NLD’s opposition against proportional representation

How are the people of Myanmar going to choose their representatives next year? This question was raised on June 4, when Amyotha Hluttaw legislator Daw Khin Waing Kyi (National Democratic Force, Yangon region) re-opened the long standing debate on proportional representation versus first-past-the-post. The right wing member of the NDF, who was known to be fairly regime-friendly during the Ne Win era, proposed a switch to a proportional voting system.

The proposal suited not only the NDF, a relatively small opposition party in danger of losing all its seats to the National League for Democracy in the next polls, but also the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which fears an absolute NLD majority in parliament if the first-past-the-post voting system remains for the upcoming general elections, likely to take place in December 2015.

The Upper House voted in favour of the proposal, with support from the USDP. The NLD and military representatives voted against it. Amyotha Hluttaw speaker U Khin Aung Myint reacted by setting up a commission tasked with investigating how other countries implement proportional representation systems and the implications, if put in practice, for Myanmar’s electoral by-laws.

The commission was sworn in on June 13. NLD parliamentarian U Aung Kyi Nyunt (Magway Region) resigned from the newly formed body the same day. “Throughout its party history the NLD has rejected proportional representation,” he told Mizzima Daily.

It’s not hard to see why the NLD opposes the proposed change in the country’s voting system. In a first-past-the-post system a majority vote in any constituency is enough to win the seat and leave political opponents empty handed. In the 1990 general elections first-past-the-post landed the NLD 482 seats (80 per cent) while the party won only 58 percent of the votes. The story repeated itself during the April 2012 by-elections, in which the NLD won two thirds of the votes but grabbed 43 out of the 44 contested seats, or 98 percent of the seats.

The November 2010 polls told a similar story. Although widely believed to be fraught with fraud, with the Asian Network for Free Elections reporting widespread irregularities, the USDP reaped the benefit of first-past-the-post system, although the difference between the seats allotted and the actual share of the votes was less striking than in the 1990 poll results.

It’s fair to say in first-past-the-post front winners can receive more of the political pie than they might deserve proportionate to the actual vote tally.

The NLD claims that its opposition to the proportional system is not based on power politics alone. The system could also allow for pro-military coalitions to gain seats while the democratic opposition runs the risk of being scattered, with many smaller parties pinching seats away from the NLD. It would be the old junta’s ‘divide and rule’ tactics all over again.

It could also be argued that the renewed debate on voting systems is a tactic to divert attention away from more important constitutional issues, such as the decision taken by the Constitutional Amendment Implementation Committee to retain article 59 (f), which bars Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from the Presidency. By cluttering the political arena with several debates at the same time, the NLD’s focus on charter amendments could be defused.

According to the NLD there’s not enough time to switch to a proportional voting system before the elections of 2015. Associated electoral laws would need to be rewritten. Union Election Commission chief U Tin Aye announced previously that changes to the voting system would need to be made before the end of 2013 in order for them to be in place for the 2015 elections. This deadline has since long passed. One wonders if a switch to a proportional system is possible at all when the soon to be released census data may lead to a re-drawing of constituency boundaries in ethnic minority areas.

There is another side to the story, however. Proportional representative voting is, arguably, the most democratic voting system around.

Last year the Economist Intelligence Unit analyzed 167 independent countries, and two territories, using five criteria: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture. The researchers concluded that about half the world lives under some form of a democratic system, with only 15 per cent of countries enjoying full democracy. In the resulting Democracy Index 2013, Scandinavian countries Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Denmark occupied the top four spots on the list. New Zealand rounded out the top five.

Interestingly, the top five most democratic nations all use proportional representation voting systems. Myanmar ranked 149th on the index, scoring particularly low in ‘electoral process’ and ‘political participation’.

Proportional representation, invented by British schoolmaster Thomas Wright Hill in 1821, comes in different forms, such as list systems, single transferable vote, mixed member proportional representation, and various combinations of the before mentioned. The one thing they all have in common that they result in a fairer distribution of the seats, be it local, regional or national, when compared to the actual voting results. The proportional system is not exclusive, unless thresholds are used. It allows all parties with some popular support to take part in the parliamentary process.

Myanmar’s political climate in this transitional period towards a truly democratic system would benefit from plurality. Many important issues need to be resolved including federalism, poverty alleviation and constitutional reforms, to name but a few. These issues deserve the participation of all groups in society, not just that of the NLD, a party which lacks a well rounded program and is overly dependent on its figurehead.

In the end it boils down to an honest result. The number of votes cast for a party should reflect the number of seats in the Union Parliament and the distribution of power. Proportional representation guarantees just that.

Isn’t it ironic that the democrats of the NLD teamed up with the military in the Amyotha Hluttaw, their arch enemy of old, to prevent the further democratization of Myanmar?

This Article first appeared in the July 3, 2014 edition of Mizzima Business Weekly.

Mizzima Business Weekly is available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com