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Burma’s relatively new, quasi-civilian leadership has yet to prove that it is responsible and accountable to the country’s citizens, who, for the first time after decades under an oppressive military regime, have been given the promise of representation. But the problems in Burma that most affect the lives of its people are rarely reaching parliament, which has chosen instead to focus on convoluted political shuffles and superficial reforms.
One lively debate has come out of parliament recently, however. A proposal to adopt a proportional representation (PR) electoral system has sparked heated discussion about how best to bring Burma’s marginalised peoples into the political arena. With by-elections expected to be held later this year and a monumental general election slated for 2015, electoral procedures have become one of the most important political issues in Burma. Members of the international community have repeatedly warned that they will be watching to see how Burma performs come election time. Failure to hold free and fair elections could bring big consequences from Western governments that are both eager to invest and apprehensive about Burma’s reforms.
The PR system, first proposed to parliament by the National Democratic Front (NDF) earlier this year, is an alternative to Burma’s current “first past the post” (FPTP) system, which grants representation on a “winner takes all” basis. The proposal was immediately divisive; Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), staunchly rejected the idea, while the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) all got behind it. The position of the military on this issue is still unclear.
The NLD rejected the proposal on the grounds that the current Constitution does not allow for the introduction of a new electoral system. While the military-drafted charter is largely contested and viewed by many as an illegitimate document in dire need of revision, Burma’s politicians are keenly aware that they have to play by the rules.
Proponents of PR argue that the system would empower small parties that represent minorities because it would reduce “wasted votes” and ensure a more diverse parliament. Detractors, however, view the switch as an attempt to weaken the opposition’s power by splitting it up into disparate factions. While Burma is known as an incredibly diverse country — populated by people of many ethnicities, faiths and cultures — many of the country’s minority groups have allegiances to each other. The PR system, some analysts say, would weaken this unity and create competition among minorities which could do more harm than good.
Ensuring diversity and inclusivity in the political and social spheres is necessary as the country moves towards achieving democracy. That said, the idea of “diversity and inclusivity” should not be manipulated to overwhelm the legislature and flummox the general public, who, more than anything, crave unity.
National policies cannot be “diversely” implemented. If Burma’s parliament attempts to establish such a system, a party run by cronies or by Buddhists could create self-serving policies, the opposition’s policies will compete with each other, and the legislature will stagnate. Attempting to suddenly diversify the parliament will not actually bring about legal protections for the country’s diverse population.
Diversity can only be maintained on a personal level, through one’s own moral conviction. It is not a collective mandate. The principle of maintaining diversity suits smaller units of governance, such as village or township committees, but it would be preposterous to make diversity the top priority when electing union-level legislators. The most important quality for a political assembly in any democratic system is the ability to compromise. This is what we should look for in our leaders, and we should create a system that allows them to do that successfully in a way that meets the diverse needs of the country.“A PR system, at this point in Burma’s transition, would further institutionalise already strong interest groups like Buddhists, cronies and veterans… These interest groups do not seek compromise, they seek power”
Some people assume that a FPTP system is unfair because of its winner-take-all nature. This assumption is wrong; in a vibrant, competitive and fair election, the candidate who wins is the one most favoured by voters. It is the minority votes that tend to break ties in close, competitive races. They are the voters that swing elections, they choose the candidate best able to compromise on their behalf.
A PR system, at this point in Burma’s transition, would further institutionalise already strong interest groups like Buddhists, cronies and veterans by ensuring their place in parliament while weakening their opponents. These interest groups do not seek compromise, they seek power. Benefitting them through electoral reform would contradict a fundamental ethic of law-making; laws exist to protect the weak from the powerful. Laws pave the way for preserving the common interests of the people.
In free and fair contests, legislators are elected because people trust their judgment and ability to make decisions that will benefit the community. Choosing leaders based on specific interests, a likely outcome of the PR system, could fracture those communities. Acknowledging the views of minorities is crucial to democracy, but allowing those views to be overpowered by other interest groups that are sure to be supported is unacceptable.
The PR system will entrench special interests in the parliament and create a political impasse, at the very moment when the nation needs general consensus to keep reforms moving quickly and smoothly. In Burma, where many of those interests — namely, faith-based, economic and military — are closely related to each other, they could become an overpowering political presence in the government, leaving the nation’s people stranded.
The PR system is representative, but FPTP is responsible. The FPTP system elects the candidate that appeals to the broadest spectrum of voters, special interests aside. Proportional representation, at this point in time for Burma, runs the risk of empowering extremists and opportunists. Keeping Burma’s reforms on track will require the critical capacity to choose leaders based on the common sense and common interest of the majority.
Dr Nyo Tun has worked as an international consultant for the EU, USAID and Gates Foundation-funded study projects which analyse strategies for national and global health issues. Prior to his international consultancy work, he led public health initiatives for providing health care to marginalised populations in various regions of Burma.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect DVB’s editorial policy.