Myanmar Parliament Sets Up Panel to Study Divisive Electoral System


2014-07-29
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myanmar-parliament-aug-2013.jpg Lawmakers attend a parliamentary session in Naypyidaw, Aug. 16, 2013.
AFP

Myanmar’s parliament on Tuesday agreed to set up a committee to consider the possibility of introducing a controversial proportional representation (PR) electoral system in next year's polls, as Speaker Shwe Mann cautioned that it could fracture ethnic unity in the fledgling democracy.

The decision by the Lower House to form the panel followed three days of debate on a proposal to change the electoral system by a lawmaker from the tiny National Democratic Force (NDF) party and supported by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which dominates parliament.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party and several ethnic minority parties instead favor the current “first-past-the-post” electoral system, in which candidates who receive the highest number of votes are elected.

Shwe Mann on Tuesday said he does not agree with the proposal to adopt the PR system, warning it could hurt Myanmar’s bid to achieve a national reconciliation among varied ethnic groups President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government has said is essential to a democratic union.

“I have talked to ethnic leaders [several times in the past] and I am always thinking this way—it is necessary to avoid disintegrating ethnic unity,” he said.

“It is also necessary to achieve national reconciliation, as well as peace and rule of law in our country. Because of these reasons, I don’t agree with the PR proposal, which advocates the use of different electoral systems in regions (home to ethnic majority Burmans) and states (ethnic minority areas).”

According to NDF leader Aung Zin, the PR system should only be used in regions, while the states, where most ethnic minorities live, should continue to use the first-past-the-post system. The NLD has said that the entire country should use the same electoral system.

Shwe Mann, who is USDP chief, recommended that a committee of experts be set up to discuss the PR system and the proposal was agreed to by lawmakers, including Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD members of parliament.

No details were provided on how the commission would be formed or who it would include.

A house divided

Last month, the Upper House approved the PR proposal and set up its own panel of lawmakers to consider the system, which the USDP has backed in a bid to prevent a highly likely landslide win by the NLD in the 2015 general elections, according to some reports.

Political pundits believe that the NLD, which did not participate in the last elections in 2010, could sweep to power in next year's polls under the existing first-past-the-post electoral system.

But the proposal has led to a fiery debate in the Lower House, with about 20 MPs from ethnic parties, including from the Nationalities Brotherhood Federation (NBF)—an alliance of 15 ethnic parties—boycotting sessions at which it was discussed.

The NBF had said earlier that the PR system would allow major parties with sufficient resources to grab seats from smaller, local ethnic parties.

The Irrawaddy online journal quoted Khin Saw Wai, a lawmaker from western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, as saying that more than 40 MPs spoke in total on Thursday, Monday, and Tuesday, with about an equal number in support of or against the PR system.

Military MPs who spoke in parliament on Monday said the proposal would “destabilize” the country, and could “endanger ethnic unity and the union,” adding that it is “too early” to introduce a PR electoral system in such a young democratic state.

Other opponents have said that a PR system would place too much focus on a party and not its candidate, and that the proposal could sideline smaller ethnic parties.

Thein Sein’s government took power from the former military junta in 2011 and has ushered in a host of democratic reforms since then.

But his ruling USDP has been slow to accept proposed reforms to Myanmar’s constitution, including a clause that gives the military veto power over changes to the charter and another which bars Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president in next year’s election because her two sons hold British citizenship.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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