Friday, July 25, 2014

Myanmar Parliament Agrees to Debate Controversial Electoral System

People cheer as they celebrate the 67th anniversary of Martyrs' Day at the National League for Democracy (NLD) head office in Yangon, July 19, 2014. AFP

RFA - July 24, 2014

Myanmar's ruling party-dominated parliament agreed Thursday to launch a debate on plans to introduce a controversial proportional representation (PR) electoral system in next year's polls, shrugging off objections from opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party and ethnic parties, officials said. 

The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is pushing for the PR system in a bid to prevent a highly likely landslide win by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) in the 2015 general elections, some reports have suggested. 

At Thursday's session of the House of Representatives, more than 200 lawmakers mostly from the USDP voted to debate the possibility of adopting the PR system, in which the number of seats won by a party is proportional to the number of votes received. 

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 current "first-past-the-post” electoral system, in which candidates who receive the highest number of votes are elected. 

"We objected to discussing it because the ethnic groups have been against it from the start," Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters after the parliamentary sitting. 

"We backed the proposal not to discuss the PR system based on this point," she said. "It is not because we dare not discuss it. We want to discuss it and want to let people know why the NLD doesn’t support the PR system." 

About 20 MPs from ethnic parties, including from the Nationalities Brotherhood Federation (NBF), an alliance of 15 ethnic parties, did not attend the parliamentary sitting which had considered a bill proposed by the opposition National Democratic Force (NDF) to debate adopting the PR system in the upcoming polls. 

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

'True' democracy?

But NDF MP Tin New Oo said the PR system would bring about a "true multi-party democracy system" in Myanmar. "We only have a so-called multi-party democracy system at present." 

The bill on Thursday was overwhelmingly approved with support mostly from MPs from the USDP, which dominates parliament. 

Last month, a majority of lawmakers in the upper house of parliament voted to study a possible switch from the current electoral system. A panel in the chamber has begun drafting a proposal for the PR system to cater to Myanmar's needs. 

Military MPs had objected to the proposal in the upper house but did not oppose the move Thursday. 

Ba Shin, a lawmaker from the Rakhine National Party, which rules the western Rakhine state, said he pressed for continuation of elections using the current system. 

"I stressed that the current system that we have used since 2010 has no problem," he said, warning that "ethnic unity could be harmed if we use the PR system." 


NLD vice-chairman Tin Oo, at a party meeting recently, accused the USDP of promoting the PR system to distract the public from a campaign to amend the constitution. 

The meeting focused on a petition launched by the NLD and the 88 Generation students group to collect signatures in support of amending the constitution. 

“It only demonstrates [the USDP’s] intention to disrupt [this campaign],” Tin Oo was quoted saying by the local Mizzima news agency. 

The petition calls for amendments to Article 436 of the charter, which allows effective veto power by Myanmar’s military over proposed constitutional changes. 

Under Article 436, charter reform can take place only with the support of 75 percent of lawmakers, and the constitution—written in 2008 under Myanmar’s former military junta regime—reserves 25 of the seats in the country’s parliament for military members who are appointed without election. 

Aung San Suu Kyi has said that getting rid of the military’s veto is the first step needed to pave the way for other constitutional amendments. 

'Death knell'

The Shan Herald newspaper said in a report this month that the USDP was trying to prevent a highly likely landslide win by the NLD by pushing for the PR system, quoting political and activist sources in Myanmar. 

“The current winner-take-all (first-past-the-post) system may sound the death knell of the USDP, just like it has done to the NUP (National Unity Party, the former ruling Socialist Party of the late General Ne Win),” a source told the paper, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

Reported by Win Naung Toe and Kyaw Thu for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.

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