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Federalism and the timing of elections in Myanmar

by Michael Breen

The upcoming election in Myanmar is not just to elect a new national parliament, but also to elect new parliaments in the states and regions, including for the self-administered areas.

Federalism, as I am sure readers will know, is a key goal of many parties and their candidates. At the same time, Myanmar already has a federal structure, comprising fourteen states and regions, a union territory and six self-administered areas.

In a federal country, national, regional and local elections are usually held one after the other.

When they are held at the same time, national issues tend to override local issues, and there is considerably more correspondence between national level and regional electoral outcomes.

It is logistically easier, and far cheaper, to hold elections for each level simultaneously. But it is less federal.

One of the benefits of federalism is that different parties can be in power at different levels, which adds to the accountability of each level. In other words, it makes it easier for states and regions to act as a check on the central government and vice versa.

Further, having different parties in states and regions means that those states and regions are more likely to act autonomously and in the interests of local people.

When the same party is in power in each state and region, the states and regions are more likely to become like arms of the central government, rather than their own autonomous governments.

In Malaysia, for example, the opposition was kept out of central government for more than 50 years. But opposition parties have been able to control some states and thereby had a basis from which to strengthen their opposition and the democratic accountability of the central government, culminating in a change of power in 2018, for the first time in its post-independent history.

Still, it is difficult for voters in federal states to understand and maintain the distinction between the roles and governments in different levels.

In Australia, where I am from, many people fail to distinguish between the federal and state governments even though they have been in place for almost 120 years.

But our elections are not at the same time, so state elections are fought on state issues, and national elections on national issues.

In time, one way to strengthen both federalism and democracy in Myanmar would be to disentangle the national level elections from the state and regional elections.

In the meantime, voters should keep in mind the different roles and responsibilities of each level of government, and their interests, and vote accordingly. This might mean voting for one party in the central parliament and a different party in the state or regional parliament.

In fact, the most successful ethnic party in the 2015 election (Arakan National Party) urged its constituents to vote for the NLD at the national level (to pursue system wide change) and for itself (the ANP) at the state/regional level.

This kind of strategy is in keeping with the spirit of federalism, and has proven to be successful.


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