[lg policy] In Myanmar, an Election Doomed to Fail

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sat Mar 31 15:16:54 UTC 2012

In Myanmar, an Election Doomed to Fail
Published: March 30, 2012

AFTER five decades of brutal authoritarian rule, Myanmar’s military
leaders have, in recent months, legalized labor unions, increased
press freedom and released political dissidents. The opposition leader
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest until November 2010,
is now running in the coming by-elections.

Yet those reforms are bound to fail and could plunge the country back
into violence unless the government addresses important ethnic
divisions. Myanmar, formerly Burma, is potentially explosive because
its many ethnic groups are concentrated in their own regions — a
situation ripe for bloody secessions.

In recent weeks, the military signed a truce with the Shan ethnic
group and ordered a cessation of operations against the Karen group in
the southeast.  But those ethnic insurgencies began in the 1950s in
response to a breakdown of democracy that stemmed from poorly designed
political institutions, particularly the country’s electoral rules.
To prevent the return of ethnic conflict, Myanmar must urgently
undertake electoral reforms.

In ethnically divided countries, the two most common approaches to
electoral fairness are “proportional representation,” which awards
seats in the legislature based on parties’ vote percentages, thus
encouraging small ethnic parties, or “majoritarian” electoral rules,
that favor broad-based political parties rather than ethnic ones.

Myanmar’s British-style majoritarian electoral system (in place from
1948 to 1962) failed to halt intense ethnic bickering and ultimately
led to aggrieved minority groups’ taking up arms rather than
participating in elections. Interestingly, the majoritarian electoral
system actually led to almost the same outcome that proportional
representation rules would have produced — small ethnic parties and
factions rather than broad-based ones.

Why? Looking at the accompanying map of Myanmar’s ethnic groups
superimposed on the 2010 electoral districts, it is clear that most
districts are ethnically homogenous. This means that the dominant
ethnic group’s candidate is almost certain to win without having to
rely on the votes of other groups. There is no incentive for
candidates to moderate their positions or seek compromise with other
groups because political success is secured by virtue of demographics.

Myanmar’s prospects for democracy are not hopeless. After all, even
peaceful and prosperous Belgium failed to form a government from June
2010 to December 2011, precisely because of the ethnic, geographic and
linguistic divisions between its Flemish and Walloon populations.

Gridlock and conflict can be overcome if political institutions are
designed to offer incentives for cooperation. And Myanmar does not
have to look far for an example of how electoral rules can be tweaked
to prevent ethnic conflict.

In 1998, Indonesia threw off the shackles of authoritarian rule of
decades. The authors of the country’s 1999 Constitution added a
seemingly prosaic requirement to the electoral rules: all parties
would have to compete in two-thirds of provinces across the country
and in two-thirds of districts within each province.  These rules
hampered the rise of ethnically based, localized parties by forcing
parties to compete across a vast, diverse country. The rules also
forced elite groups to seek compromise with other ethnic groups as
they built a party that could win elections. By contrast, the writers
of Bosnia’s and Iraq’s Constitutions were not so farsighted, leaving
those countries mired in political gridlock and sectarian violence.

Myanmar should pay close attention to those examples as it pursues a
transition to democracy. Its leaders and citizens must move beyond the
euphoria of reform and address the seemingly obscure details of
electoral rules. If they don’t, it could mean the death of democratic
hopes and a return to ethnic strife.

Joel Sawat Selway is assistant professor of political science at
Brigham Young University.


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