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Myanmar, Silent Transitional Dialogue and the Wrong Choice of Electoral Systems

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Tuesday, February 2, 2021, the world was shocked by the news that the Myanmar military took a coup against the government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD). The coup was carried out because the main opposition party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), accused the election of being fraudulent while the Myanmar Electoral Court was unable to process the lawsuit quickly and with certainty.

This event attracted election activists in Indonesia who were involved in Myanmar’s democratic transition process to reflect. Myanmar is both experiencing a democratic transition like Indonesia. However, Indonesia succeeded in placing the military outside democratic institutions, while Myanmar was still struggling to change the constitution that gave super powers to the military. What happened?

Indonesia, Myanmar’s election governance orientation

The Indonesian election expert, Hadar Nafis Gumay, recounted his experience in 2003 as a resource person in the process of drafting election governance in Myanmar at the beginning of the democratic transition period. Hadar has a good memory of the Union Election Commission (UEC) for the process.

In the meeting with UEC, Hadar explained how Indonesia manages the voter list, voter education, logistics preparation, and the importance of involving various parties including civil society in preparing for elections. UEC, according to Hadar, was very concerned about the preparation of the voter list.

“November, I met with UEC. I was asked to tell how Indonesia held an election which was considered to be running smoothly. There have also been a number of their visits to Indonesia as well. They are diligent in attending conferences related to election organizers. So, the desire to know and learn about elections, in my opinion, was greatly reflected in their election organizers at that time,” said Hadar during a discussion on “A Call to Implement Democratic Electoral Procedures in Myanmar” on Saturday (2/6).

However, according to Hadar, the domestic political situation in Myanmar is a big challenge to fix and design the electoral governance and election system of Myanmar as studied by UEC. The military controls 25 percent of the seats in the lower and upper houses through a reserved seat scheme.

Adding Hadar, member of the supervisory board of Association for Election and Democracy (Perludem), Titi Anggraini, who was also invited by UEC to organize the Myanmar election, considered that one of the election problems in Myanmar is the immeasurable and non-transparent election dispute handling procedure. There is no time limit for handling election disputes or violations so that parties seeking electoral justice are often in legal uncertainty.

“They have a kind of election court, an election tribunal connected to the Myanmar UEC. The procedure is not always scalable. The handling is not transparent and accountable. Unlike Indonesia, we have a clearer classification of electoral legal problems, and have time to handle electoral problems in a more measured manner. When it should be finished,” explained Titi.

In the context of the November 2020 Myanmar elections that culminated in a military coup, the opposition political party that lost the election has filed a lawsuit. However, the handling process is uncertain.

“They have filed suit several times, but the process is long. So that the parties and parties supported by the military are not strong enough to say that there are election violations, “said Titi.

The observation report on the Myanmar Election by the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) stated that although there were problems in the voter lists and the elections in some areas were not carried out on the grounds of armed conflict, these conditions did not merely indicate that the 2020 Myanmar Elections were full of fraud and elections result are not credible.

Lack of dialogue leads to stagnation of the democratic transition

The occurrence of a military coup in Myanmar amidst the ongoing democratic transition is a sign of democratic stagnation. Myanmar’s democratic stagnation is not something that is surprising, because in the transition process there was not much dialogue to facilitate the interests of many groups in the new political system. Political reform was also not accompanied by military reform, as was done by Indonesia.

“Reconciliation, dialogue with many parties does not happen. So, their transition process keeps embers from groups that are not facilitated in the dialogue, “said Titi.

The coup by the military on February 2 was also constitutionally incorrect. This is because only the president, not the vice president, has the authority to declare a state of emergency. The state of martial law was declared by the vice president who was supported by the military.

Reflecting on Indonesia, the transition to democracy from the New Order era to the post-Reformation period ran relatively smoothly due to a vibrant Indonesian civil society. National and local media have also emerged, marking the vibrant democracy with a center of diverse voices in it. Compare this with Myanmar, where there is only a small amount of media as an instrument of healthy democracy.

Conflicts driven by political elites in Indonesia are not burning. Allegedly, thanks to the elected representative proportional electoral system. This system does provide wider space for diversity of opinions and interests. In Myanmar, the first past the post electoral system with only 1 seat per electoral district is undoubtedly one of the causes of political discontent.

 

“Myanmar uses first past the post. While the community is diverse. Finally, there was dissatisfaction because they felt that they were not fully facilitated by the electoral system they had chosen. That is a reflection for us, in case of diversity, it is important to have a choice of systems that can facilitate diversity in our political contestation,” said Titi.

Democracy gives decisions to the people to decide what is worth fighting for. The military coup that occurred should be an alarm for civil society in other countries to play a role in the democratic process, stem the non-democratic forces that can gradually become the majority power, and maintain the quality of democracy by providing a place for diversity.

“Transition to democracy should not take too long. Civil society in Myanmar needs our support. Not for the NLD or Aung San Suu Kyi, but for democracy itself,” concluded Titi.

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