In Myanmar, an Election Doomed to Fail

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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