After suffering successive humiliating election defeats, the military is rewriting the rules in a bid to legitimise its illegal coup – but will anybody take the bait?
By ANDREW NACHEMSON and FRONTIER
It seemed clear from the beginning that the military would try to legitimise its rule by manipulating the electoral system. One of the junta’s first moves after it seized power in a coup in February of last year was to sack the Union Election Commission and reappoint U Thein Soe as chairman. The former major-general is best known for overseeing the 2010 election, which the military-proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party won amid boycotts and irregularities.
The plan hinges on switching from first-past-the-past (FPTP) to proportional representation (PR) for future elections, the first of which the junta pledges to hold next year. The proposal may seem reasonable on paper, but on deeper inspection is revealed to be a cynical maneuvre to enshrine military rule.
“The PR system reduces one-party dominant rule,” Thein Soe said in December 2021. “It will increase the participation of all parties.”
It’s undeniable that the FPTP system has favoured the National League for Democracy, which won massive landslide electoral victories in 2015 and 2020.
In 2015, the NLD won 57 percent of the popular vote but claimed around 80pc of the 168 seats in the upper house (Amyotha Hluttaw). In contrast, the USDP won 28pc of the popular vote, but received a paltry 12 seats, or 7pc.
Proportional representation is hardly novel – various forms of PR are used in more than 100 countries around the world – and it is often celebrated as a means of ensuring greater political, ethnic and gender diversity.
The first problem is that the military already gets an entirely unelected bloc of 25pc of the seats in each level of parliament. While PR may be fairer in theory, when accompanied by the military’s quota it seems to just be a scheme to cement military rule with the veneer of elections.
“Under the 2008 Constitution, the PR system is very dangerous,” said Ma Thiri*, a researcher on Myanmar’s electoral system.
According to a report by public policy group Salween Institute, if PR had been used in both houses of the national parliament in the 2015 election, the USDP would have won 21pc of the seats, compared to the NLD’s 45pc. Along with the military’s guaranteed 25pc, the armed forces and the USDP would have controlled 46pc of available seats between them – more than the NLD – which may have allowed the military to appoint the president and form a cabinet, depending on other minor parties.
“That’s why they want to change the PR system. As long as they have their 25pc in the parliament, the military will be able to manipulate it,” Ma Thiri said. “The PR system is not the main problem; 25pc [of seats] for the military is the main problem.”
Ma Zar Chi*, who served as secretary of a township sub-commission of the UEC, theorised that the generals were initially drawn to FPTP when drafting the 2008 Constitution because they mistakenly believed it would deliver them the dominant role in Myanmar politics. The 2008 Constitution was “drafted for one-party rule of the country”, she said – but they thought the one party would be the USDP, not the NLD.
In 2014, two years after being trounced by the NLD in by-elections, the USDP flirted with the idea of introducing proportional representation – at the suggestion of minor parties, some of whom would later throw in their lot with the junta – but decided against it.
Zar Chi said at the time the military still seemed to think its proxy party could win under FPTP.
“But in the 2015 election, the [NLD] won a landslide victory. There, the USDP lost out. Since then, they have considered switching to a PR system.”
U Pe Than, an ousted lawmaker who resigned from the Arakan National Party last year, said Min Aung Hlaing may be eying the presidency, which many observers have long suspected he covets.
“If the military wants the current commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, to become president, he will become president,” he said.
‘These are just tricks’
Shortly after taking office, Thein Soe began discussing a potential switch to a PR system with 62 political parties – the vast majority minor pro-military parties. Only four parties in attendance had won seats in 2020 – the USDP, the Mon Unity Party, the Pa-O National Party and the New Democracy Party (Kachin).
After several meetings, the parties agreed to use a closed list PR system in the next election, meaning that voters would be presented with a list of parties on their ballot rather than individual candidates. Ranked lists of candidates would be published by each party prior to the election, with candidates taking office in order depending on how many seats the party won.
While it’s commonly believed that ethnic minority parties would benefit from PR, this doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case. “The military has said it will create a decentralised parliament and government demanded by ethnic groups. These are just tricks,” said Ma Thiri.
According to the Transnational Institute, the ANP and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy both may have benefitted from FPTP in 2015. ANP took 4.5pc of the seats with 2.2pc of the national popular vote, while the SNLD took 3.1 pc of the seats with 1.6pc of the vote.
But the UEC’s PR plan would not be based on the national popular vote. Instead, constituencies would be based on districts, with a seat for each township within the district.
But even on a district basis, some ethnic parties seem to have benefitted from FPTP in 2020. For example, a Frontier analysis of 2020 election data found MUP and the Kayah State Democracy Party (KySDP) both outperformed their popular votes in Mawlamyine and Loikaw districts, respectively.
Results in Mawlamyine largely mirrored the popular vote for the upper and lower houses, but the MUP won six state parliament seats with around 197,000 votes. The NLD also won six seats, but with over 311,000 votes. A similar situation played out in Loikaw District, where KySDP and NLD each got two seats in the lower house, despite the NLD winning more than double the number of votes.
Some parties, like the Kachin State People’s Party, did seem to do worse under FPTP than they would have under PR. The party won about 13pc of the popular vote in Kachin State, for example, but only about 7.5pc of the seats.
But PR would primarily benefit the USDP, one domestic election monitoring group told Frontier. Their analysis was based on 2020 results for the lower house only, using current districts, which could be changed for the 2023 vote. Under such a system, the NLD would have dropped from 258 seats to 215, while the USDP would have gone up from 26 to 67. The SNLD would have lost three seats, the ANP would have lost one seat and the KSPP would have gained one.
The director of the election monitoring group said they believe the NLD still would have been able to appoint the president, even with PR. He expects the military will turn to “gerrymandering” to ensure the USDP wins a majority rather than the “very obvious cheating” it engaged in in 2010. “They don’t want to do that kind of cheating in 2023, instead they want to manipulate the political landscape,” he said.
Where the parties stand
All of this analysis goes out the window without the NLD’s participation, however. The party’s absence would be a more determinative factor in the outcome than which type of electoral system is used.
The NLD did not respond to Frontier’s request for comment, but party leaders recently rejected the election plans. “The poll be will nothing more than a sham election that mocks democracy and goes against the public will. We have no reason to accept their so-called election,” central working committee member U Kyaw Htwe told The Irrawaddy earlier this month.
The MUP, which came second to the NLD in many townships, would likely benefit far more from the NLD’s absence than from a switch to PR, for example.
The MUP, which has cooperated with the junta since the coup, told Frontier it would “definitely” run in a junta-administered election. “We never discussed not participating in the election,” said party spokesman Nai Than Shwe.
He said the decision was made in order to avoid dissolution and to continue serving the Mon people.
“Only if our party is alive can we meet with our people and solve their problems in our state… We can make development projects and we can solve our Mon peoples’ problems through parliament,” Than Shwe said.
He compared the planned 2023 elections to the 2010 elections, which were also held under the 2008 Constitution and subjected to major party boycotts. “After the 2010 election, parliament and the civilian government appeared,” he said.
In contrast, the KySDP has taken a firm stance against the polls and any political process under the military-drafted constitution, even if it leads to the party’s dissolution.
“If the people do not want the election, we can’t do anything. In this situation, our people don’t want an election, so the KySDP will not contest,” said party spokesperson Khu Thae Reh.
He added that he didn’t think the Karenni people would accept “any political path under the 2008 Constitution”.
Furthermore, Thae Reh said he did not believe it would be logistically possible to hold elections in Kayah State due to the ongoing conflict.
“Many people are displaced and armed fighting is still happening in Kayah. There is no peace in our state,” he said.
Anti-coup armed groups are at war with the junta in many states and regions, with Kachin, Kayin, Kayah and Chin states, as well as Sagaing and Magway regions, emerging as resistance strongholds. The United Nations recently estimated that more than 1 million people are now displaced in Myanmar, more than two-thirds of them having fled their homes since the coup.
In many of these areas, fighting and a campaign of assassinations has wiped out the regime’s administration system, which plays a central role in organising elections. While a ceasefire is still being observed in Rakhine State, the junta’s administration is being supplanted by or co-opted into the Arakan Army’s Arakan People’s Authority, and tensions are rising with the armed group, with fears of a return to large-scale clashes.
“In this situation, it is impossible to hold a nationwide election,” said Ma Thiri. “If they hold it next year, the election will not be free and fair.”
However, both the ANP and SNLD refused to rule out participating in the election, although the ANP agreed armed conflict would be an obstacle.
“In a lot of areas, people are displaced, houses are burned, and people are killed. In this situation, voters cannot vote freely and safely,” said ANP chair Thar Tun Hla.
He indicated an openness to PR “in theory” but said the entire “political system” must be reformed first. Still, he left the door open to participating in a junta-run election.
“Whether the ANP will participate in the election depends on what happens in the coming months,” Thar Tun Hla said. “Nothing has been discussed in our party about it yet.”
The SNLD was similarly noncommittal, saying the party has refused to even consider whether to participate in a junta-run election until the end of the year.
“There is no need to discuss what will happen next year. We don’t even know what will happen tomorrow or next month,” said Sai Kyaw Nyunt, the party’s joint secretary.
The international factor
London-based human rights and democracy consultant, Ko Minn Tent Bo, said the junta may be using the elections as a ploy to win recognition from the international community, or at least the parts that are more sympathetic.
“The military wants to build its legitimacy in ASEAN and the international community. So, they are trying to hold elections,” said Minn Tent Bo, who used to work for international election monitoring group the Carter Center.
He said the junta would try to present a nominally “civilian” government in the hope of restoring relations with international partners.
The junta remains isolated internationally – it has no seat at the United Nations and is excluded from high-level ASEAN summits. Analysts say a sham election could lead to formal recognition from the junta’s allies, particularly China and Russia, but is unlikely to convince the international community more broadly.
“It might work with ASEAN, since ASEAN just wants to get rid of its Myanmar headache,” said Mr Josh Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. But he added that it would likely only convince “authoritarian” member states of the regional bloc.
Thailand, for one, appears primed to accept the elections. Ms Pornpimol Kanchanalak, Bangkok’s new special envoy to Myanmar, insisted at a recent panel that the junta’s election plans should be taken “at face value”. But it seems unlikely that bloc members such as Malaysia or Indonesia will accept the outcome.
Mr Sebastian Strangio, author of In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century, said elections would likely “underscore, and perhaps even widen, the preexisting divisions within ASEAN on how to handle Myanmar”.
Strangio anticipates that any administration that comes to power via a military-administered election will remain “backlisted” from high-level ASEAN meetings.
Both analysts said they also doubted sham elections would significantly influence other regional heavyweights like India or Japan. Strangio predicted Japan and India would likely continue their current “coldly pragmatic” approach of maintaining engagement with the military while stopping short of formal recognition.
They also agreed that Myanmar’s junta is trying to imitate the Thai military’s path to power. After it overthrew the country’s democratically elected government in 2014, the Thai military held heavily criticised elections in 2019. The military gave itself the power to appoint all 250 members of the Senate, who select the prime minister together with elected lawmakers in the House of Representatives. The party overthrown in the coup, Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party, once again won the most seats up for election, but the junta was able to form a government thanks to the rigged system.
While the Myanmar military may be pursuing the same strategy, it is unlikely to be as effective in winning recognition.
Kurlantzick said Thailand is “much more strategically important to countries like Japan”, and Strangio said the same about the West. Both also referenced the greater strength of the resistance to military rule in Myanmar compared to Thailand.
“The coup has given way to an intensifying nationwide civil war that is pushing the country toward the brink of full-blown state failure and is minting human rights atrocities on a large scale, even by the standards of the pre-2011 junta. This makes it very hard for the world to proceed with business as usual,” Strangio said.
But he warned that should domestic resistance falter, some countries may be tempted to accept the junta.
“If this [resistance] were to wane, I would suspect more nations might be willing to accept the fait accompli of an election,” he said.
* denotes the use of a pseudonym on request for safety reasons