By Liam Allmark
Last month’s election to Burma’s Pyidaungsu Hluttaw was an historic moment for the country and an important juncture in its ongoing political transition. Unlike the 2010 election which fell short of international standards and was boycotted by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the majority of Burma’s people were this time able to exercise a real choice.
This is not to overlook significant shortcomings, including voter list errors, disenfranchisement of the Rohingya community, and an absence of polling stations in conflict zones, which together left millions unable to vote. Various parties have also submitted several hundred complaints about irregularities on election day itself, including localised fraud and intimidation of voters.
Nevertheless the election has been recognised as largely credible, with the result accepted by all parties and the international community. Attention now turns to the formation of the new Pyidaungsu Hluttaw early next year and the country’s continued transition away from military rule.
What will the new Pyidaungsu Hluttaw look like?
As in 2010 elections took place under First Past the Post (FPTP) to both the 440 seat Phyithu Hluttaw (lower chamber) and the 224 Amyotha Hluttaw (upper chamber). Under the military-drafted 2008 constitution 25% of seats in each chamber are reserved for unelected military personnel directly appointed by the Commander-in-Chief.
As expected the NLD achieved an overwhelming victory, winning 255 (57%) seats in the Phyithu Hluttaw and 135 (60%) in the Amyotha Hluttaw. In contrast the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) fared poorly, winning just 30 (7%) seats in the Phyithu Hluttaw and 12 (5%) in the Amyotha Hluttaw.
Roughly 8% of seats in each chamber were won by parties representing specific ethnic groups, predominantly the Arakan National Party (ANP) and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD).
This puts the NLD in firm control of both chambers, despite the precedent of military personnel voting alongside the USDP. Furthermore the NLD will not have to rely on the support of minority parties, although its leadership has indicated a strong intention to work alongside them.
Some 100 former political prisoners won seats in the election, a powerful indication of how far Burma’s reforms have come in recent years. The new Pyidaungsu Hluttaw will also see the number of female representatives approximately doubled, although given that this currently stands at just 30 across both chambers it will remain comparatively low by international standards.
Descriptive representation of ethnic and religious minorities in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw also remains weak. This is perhaps most strikingly illustrated by the fact that despite some 4% of Burma’s population practising Islam there will be no Muslim representatives in either chamber.
When will it convene?
The current Pyidaungsu Hluttaw reconvened shortly after the election and will formally remain in session until the end of January 2016. In February the new NLD-dominated legislature will convene and begin the process of forming a government. This involves the selection of three candidates: one by elected representatives of the Pyithu Hluttaw, one by elected representatives of the Amyotha Hluttaw, and one by the unelected military personnel of both chambers. Collectively all members then vote for one of the three successful candidates to become President, who goes on to appoint the majority of government ministers. The other two candidates will become Vice Presidents in the government.
The President, Vice-President and ministers can be selected from inside or outside the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, but those who are elected representatives must resign their seat forcing a by-election. As the NLD won the majority of elected seats in both chambers and the majority of seats overall, it will be in a position to select the President and one Vice President.
How much of a role will it have?
Although the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw has a central function in forming the government, it is important to recognise significant limitations enshrined in the constitution. NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is banned from holding the presidency due to an article referencing the citizenship of family members, which is widely regarded as designed to specifically exclude her. This means that the majority party in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw cannot pick its preferred candidate.
The constitution also specifies that ministers for defence, home affairs and border affairs will be appointed directly by the military rather than the President, leaving the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw without even an indirect influence over who assumes these important posts.
Because constitutional reform requires a majority of more than 75% across the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the military effectively wields a veto via its unelected 25% bloc in both chambers. A Constitutional Amendment Bill lowering the threshold to 70% and removing other articles including the one preventing Suu Kyi from becoming President was supported by the majority of representatives in June but failed to pass the existing threshold, demonstrating continued military power over the legislature.
Nonetheless the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw occupies an important place in Burma’s political system and throughout its first session has shown itself to be remarkably assertive in both legislating and holding the executive to account. Amendments to government bills on a wide range of issues, an increasingly effective committee system and extensive public attention have all reinforced its significance. Furthermore attention to the legislature is only likely to grow considering the unprecedented public participation in last month’s election.
What will the main issues be?
Many of the issues that dominated debates and legislation during the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw’s first sessions are likely to remain prominent. Burma’s economy is continuing to rapidly transform, especially due to historic levels of foreign investment and the forthcoming opening of its new stock exchange. Consequently factors such as labour rights, land reform and corporate transparency could be reasonably expected to feature heavily in the legislature.
Sensitive issues around religion including marriage and conversion may also arise during the new session. This year the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw passed four ‘Protection of Race and Religion Laws’ drafted by the controversial Ma Ba Tha group and supported by the USDP. These drew widespread international condemnation and were opposed by the NLD. Against the backdrop of communal tensions in some parts of the country it remains unclear whether the NLD will move to repeal or replace these laws now that it controls a majority in the legislature.
More broadly human rights and civil liberties are likely to be a focus for lawmakers. Ground-breaking legislation on press freedom, trade unions, and demonstrations have helped to facilitate Burma’s transition away from the authoritarianism that characterised decades of military dictatorship. However, more than 100 recognised political prisoners remain in jail and several protest movements have been supressed in recent years. The coming session may well see a tension between NLD representatives, many who served sentences as political prisoners, and the military which retains control of the Home Affairs ministry.
As the dust settles from Burma’s landmark election it is clear that this young legislature will continue to play a prominent part in the country’s transformation.
Liam Allmark is the author of “More Than Rubber-Stamps: The Consequences Produced by Legislatures in Non-Democratic States beyond Latent Legitimation” The Journal of Legislative Studies, 18(2), 2012. He is on twitter @allmark21.