Times are changing in Myanmar. After more than 50 years of authoritarian rule and civil conflicts, the transition towards a multiparty democracy is underway. Still, many parties are characterized by a lack of democratic capacity, conflicts are strife between the political wings and the media is still finding its feet as the critical watchdog of the people in power. Through the Myanmar Multiparty Democracy Programme, DIPD is supporting multiparty dialogue and the capacity building of political parties.
Myanmar is six years in to a remarkable transition from more than 50 years of authoritarian rule and civil conflicts. In March 2011, the military regime handed over power to a semi-civilian administration headed by President Thein Sein following general elections held in 2010, which were seen as deeply flawed by international observers. However, since 2011, the Thein Sein administration has launched a number of reforms, which have transformed the political landscape, including the electoral environment. In 2012, by-elections were held and they were seen internationally and domestically as more credible than the 2010 elections. The elections represented new opening with the National League for Democracy (NLD) party of Aung San Suu Kyi taking part after having boycotted the 2010 elections.
In early November 2015, the latest general elections were held, and with it Myanmar took its next big step in the democratic transition. The elections turned out to be a landslide victory for the NLD, with Aung Sam Suu Kyi’s party winning more than 75 percent of all contested seats in what was a remarkable and peaceful election. Furthermore, the election also represented a big step forward regarding the representation of women and youth in the parliament, with the number of female MP’s tripled and the number of young MP’s more than doubling.
The electoral system in detail
The 2008 constitution established the institutions and rules of Myanmar’s parliamentary democracy, which can be characterised as a dominant Presidential party system. The country has a bicameral Assembly of the Union (Pyidaungsu), which consists of the House of Nationalities (Amyotha Hluttaw) with 224 seats and the House of Representatives (Pyithu Hluttaw) with 440 seats. The constitution also establishes fourteen region/state legislatures. One quarter of the seats in each legislature are reserved for military representatives appointed by the commander-in-chief giving them significant legislative power. The military representatives can veto constitutional changes, which require a super-majority of over 75 per cent. Voters from certain minority ethnic groups may also be entitled to elect a separate ethnic representative to the region/state legislature. The electoral system used is the first-past-the-post system, commonly referred to as the “winner-takes-all” system. In all three elections since 2010, election results reflected this system (while not fully reflecting the proportional choices of the population).
The Political Parties Registration Law provides the legal framework for the establishment and registration of political parties. Improvement of the overall political party system and regulatory framework is essential in any efforts to strengthen multi-party democracy and the democratic role of political parties.
Challenges and Opportunities
Many stakeholders in Myanmar stress the need for cross-party dialogue, consensus building and reconciliation in the democratization process. A need that continues to be stressed after NLD’s electoral victory in 2015. These are seen as important means to develop a tolerant and accommodative political culture, to further sustain unity and peace, to address ethnic concerns and assist in developing broad engagement in sustaining the reform processes now underway; and in ensuring the right direction forward based on broad consultations.
There is thus a strong need for strengthening of the existing inter-party initiatives and facilitation of open and truly inclusive multi-party dialogue platforms or networks. It is essential that such networks and platforms can reach across the ruling and oppositional parties and assist the parties in better taking on their new roles in the new democratic transition and in addressing issues of joint interest in relation to the political party framework under which they all have to operate. Especially issues relating to the overall political party system are in focus. The electoral law, possible reform of the electoral system, resource mobilisation for the political parties and the party campaigning practices are high on the agenda.
The emergence of over 90 political parties in Myanmar has led to new challenges and opportunities to build a range of alliances, coalitions and other arrangements for political cooperation. The present political landscape includes three significant alliances and holds the potential for considerable alliance formation, re-formation and negotiation within and across alliances. Moreover, many actors stress the importance of a national framework for dialogue. Thus, there is already in Myanmar a lot of experience and ideas to reflect on and develop further.