Burma: The Rise of Ethnic Parties in the Political System (Part II)

By Aung Din

Myanmar's Lower House in session March 2013. Due to their projected representation in the parliament, ethnic groups will likely play a key role in determining the presidency in 2015. Source: Wikimedia user, Htoo Tay Zar, used under a creative commons license.

Myanmar’s Lower House in session during March 2013. Due to their projected representation in the parliament, ethnic groups will likely play a key role in determining the presidency in 2015. Source: Wikimedia user, Htoo Tay Zar, used under a creative commons license.

Given the power dynamics between Burma’s four key leaders ahead of the 2015 elections, political bargaining has begun in earnest. Coupled with the ruling elites’ renewed commitment to a federal structure, Burma’s ethnic parties will likely play a key role in determining who will hold the presidency and parliamentary speakerships. Here is the math:

The Lower House of Burma’s parliament is formed with 440 representatives, of which 330 are elected from 330 townships and 110 appointed by the commander-in-chief, currently Min Aung Hlaing. Among the 330 townships, 207 are located in the seven Burman-majority regions in central Burma, and 123 in the seven states of ethnic minority groups.

The Upper House is formed with 224 representatives, of which 168 are elected and 56 appointed by the commander-in-chief. With each region or state electing 12 representatives, the Burman-majority regions and ethnic states will each have 84 representatives in the Upper House.

In the bicameral Union Parliament, made up of the lower and upper houses, the makeup of the total 664 representatives can be divided as follows: 291 elected representatives from seven Burman-majority regions (44 percent), 207 representatives from seven ethnic-dominated states (31 percent) and 166 appointed representatives from the military (25 percent).

Lower House
Seats
Upper House
Seats
Union ParliamentSeats Percentage
Elected Representatives (Seven Regions, Central/South) 207 84 291 44%
Elected Representatives (Seven Ethnic States) 123 84 207 31%
Military Representatives 110 56 166 25%
Total 440 224 664 100%

Representatives from the ethnic minorities’ seven states represent 31 percent of total parliamentary seats. Ethnic groups recognize that the 2015 elections are their best chance to obtain leadership of state parliaments and to secure more representation in the Union Parliament.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) can be expected to win a landslide victory in the seven regions in central and southern Burma. But given her dwindling popularity in the ethnic areas, especially in Kachin and Rakhine states, and growing political awareness among ethnic nationalities, chances of the NLD winning overwhelmingly in ethnic-dominated states are thin. As a result, ethnic political parties may be able to capture the majority seats in their states. If they can hold 25 to 30 percent of seats in the Union Parliament, their roles will be significantly improved.

The ruling Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) will likely not win much, but it still can win a number of seats in central and southern Burma.  The party will have the support of the military if it fields incumbent Thein Sein as its presidential candidate. Since the military constitutionally holds 25 percent of seats in parliament, the USDP and military together may hold about 30 to 35 percent of the total seats in the Union Parliament.

Therefore, one potential outcome of the 2015 elections may be the formation of three power centers – the NLD, ethnic parties, and a combination of the USDP and military – each holding a third of seats in parliament. To become president, a candidate must secure at least 50 percent of the vote from members of parliament. Without support from ethnic political parties, neither the USDP nor NLD will easily win the presidency and chairmanships of the lower and upper houses.

In this context, ethnic minorities now have more power than ever before. But ethnic leaders hold different views over how to govern the country both at the national and local levels.

Some ethnic leaders want to divide Burma into eight states, meaning seven existing ethnic states and a single Burman-majority state. Some call for the current seven regions and seven states to reorganize as fourteen equal states. Others want to rewrite the constitution completely, and still others want to merely amend it.

Even so, ethnic leaders know very well they can hold significant bargaining power toward the Burman majority if they are united. They may decide to support any political parties or candidates that can promise to improve their status by addressing issues that matter most to ethnic groups, including greater distribution of powers to state governments and parliaments, revenue sharing of natural resources, and direct selection of state chief ministers by state parliamentary representatives.

All of these goals can only be met by amending the constitution, and it is the military who has power to satisfy or block constitutional demands by any groups. Therefore, the USDP and military may calculate that in order to stay in power, they will need to address constitutional provisions on ethnic issues in exchange for the support of ethnic political parties.

Mr. Aung Din is a former political prisoner in Burma and currently living in the United States. Part I of his analysis reviews the ongoing personality bargaining in the run-up to the 2015 elections. The author has requested the use of Burma to refer to the country.

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