On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Myanmar: NLD could blow the presidential ballot

Myanmar held it’s first democratic election in over three decades last November. It went off peacefully, and had a remarkable result.

It represents only a partial return to democracy. The nation’s military leadership rewrote the national constitution a few years ago and reserved for itself significant powers, including unelected control of key national security and police ministries as well as guaranteed military seats in parliament.

Despite the regime’s preparations, at the elections the National League for Democracy party won a towering victory, with around 80% of the vote. Few landslides in democratic history have ever been so clear.

The scale of this historic election result is only exceeded by some of the absurdly high results claimed in one-party authoritarian states. The NLD, an opposition movement without power for many years, can hardly be put in that category.

Their victory was so strong that they have achieved the outright majority in the parliament – the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw – which the military’s carefully crafted constitution was designed to prevent.

At November’s election the NLD party won 255 of the 330 elected seats in the lower house – the Pyithu Hluttaw – as well as 135 of the 168 elected seats in the upper house – the Amyotha Hluttaw; a clear majority in both houses.

(This is a good opportunity to draw attention to Dr Adam Carr’s invaluable website Psephos, which hosts data on election results from virtually every democratic nation.)


Psephos’ map of the Myanmar election results 2015: a sea of NLD red

The old USDP governing party – now the opposition – has a slim team of 30 lower house and 11 upper house seats. Minor parties and independents actually outnumber the opposition in total.

In a few days time, the nation’s new parliament will elect its new president. There has been a lot of media attention on the constitutional rule that bars NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president (which is that she married an British citizen and her sons have British citizenship).

Less attention has been paid to the complex procedure by which the president is actually selected, which could still be heavily influenced by the unelected military minority in the parliament.

To understand what will happen next, it’s necessary to look at the design of the new parliament.

image - Myanmar jpwer jhouse chamber.jpg

The recently opened chamber of the Pyithu Hluttaw, the lower house
of Myanmar’s new parliament (image via Wikipedia)

The parliament has some noticeable design problems. Most obviously, each of the two houses of the parliament isn’t fully democratic at all; they are both composite assemblies, 75% elected and 25% appointed by the military.

Secondly, even the democratic part of each house is elected by plurality voting. Plurality, or first-past-the-post, is one of the weaker ways of finding representatives of the voters, and often leaves majorities of voters unrepresented in parliament. In the case of Myanmar’s recent landslide election, this doesn’t seem to matter. But it will in the future.

Additionally, the parliament’s upper house is malapportioned, electing 12 members for every state and region, regardless of significant variations in population.

Whatever its flaws, this parliament is now responsible for choosing the President of Myanmar, who will lead the domestic half of the government.

However a curious trick lies in the process of presidential selection.

This new process works in the following manner. Each of three components of the parliament will select a candidate for president, the three components being the 168 elected members of the upper house (which has a total of 224 members including the military), the 330 elected members of the lower house (total of 440 members), and the combined 166 members of the two houses appointed by the military.

A joint sitting of both houses – all 664 elected and appointed members – will then meet and vote among the three candidates in a single ballot. The candidate with the most votes becomes president, while the other two get the consolation prize of a vice-presidency each, the latter having limited actual powers.

The odd design of this procedure makes sense in light of Myanmar’s party politics and the strategy of the regime to retain power during the transition to quasi-democracy.

In order to achieve a normal majority of members in either of the houses of the parliament, a party opposed to the military bloc must win 67% of the elected seats.

The process was specifically designed to fight off an election win by the then opposition NLD party. The only problem is that they failed to predict the massive win that actually happened.

But even the NLD’s dramatic result does not fully control the process of securing the presidency. The old regime can still use the nomination by the military component of parliament to put forward their own candidate for president.

The winning candidate only needs to achieve the highest vote among the three presidential nominees, not the optimal 333 or more votes.

The NLD has a total of 390 votes. The combined elected opposition USDP members and military bloc come to 207 votes. The minor parties – mostly representatives of regional minority localities – have 67 votes.

On that basis, it might look like the NLD can easily win the presidency. But here the fact that there are to be three candidates, not two, comes into play.

Since the NLD has majorities in both the parliamentary groups which can nominate a candidate, that would seem to indicate that two NLD-backed candidates will be put forward. Presumably they will intend for one to be the president, and the other to be a vice-president.

But if the NLD party becomes divided between its two candidates, or if both candidates wants to be the president, the 207 votes held by the regime suddenly become much more effective.

Firstly, unless the NLD is very disciplined in how they marshal their voting for their two candidates, it may give the military/USDP bloc the capability to abandon their own candidate (who at first glance can’t win the presidency anyway) and swing their votes behind the NLD candidate that the governing party only wanted to win a vice-presidency.

But even worse, if the NLD should be visibly divided over their two candidates the possibility opens up that the 390 governing party votes might be seriously split. At its worst, if each of them receives around 195 votes, that could actually leave the military’s candidate as the one with the most votes.

The NLD, despite its massive electoral mandate, could conceivably come away from this with two vice-presidencies, and no president!

In a game such as this, a lot turns on what public signals are being sent by the players, and how reliable they are.

The military bloc has a tactical choice to make, and it knows that both of running second and running third in this ballot have the same result: one vice-presidency for itself. It cannot fail to win one of them in any situation. It has nothing to lose by voting tactically.

The other crucial factor will be the extent to which the NLD – made up of over 300 novice parliamentarians in their first days in office – can coordinate and discipline its candidates and its members. A lot turns on who the NLD’s two presidential candidates are, and how they choose to behave.

This peculiar system was carefully contrived on the assumption that the military bloc would have more votes than it does – but it’s not out of the game yet.


29 January 2016


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This entry was posted on January 30, 2016 by in Myanmar, Plurality (first past the post).
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