Is democracy what Burma really needs?

Just Google “broken congress” (or “dysfunctional congress”) and you’ll be greeted by hundreds upon hundreds of articles heralding the demise of American democracy. It’s no surprise–Americans have a lower rating of Congress than of any other branch in government. And the average American, myself included, feel more and more powerless, more and more disenfranchised, to change a system where the odds are stacked against our favor.

Which is precisely why Hillary Clinton’s remarks at the Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony for Aung San Suu Kyi caught my attention. Around 9:30, she says:

Where the speaker of the lower house [Shwe Mann] where Suu Kyi now serves said to me, “Help us to learn how to be a democratic congress, a parliament.” He went on to tell me that they were trying to teach themselves by watching old, old segments of The West Wing. I said, “I think that we can do better than that, Mr. Speaker.”

Quite an audacious statement to make, when domestic troubles continue to brew and political apathy plagues the masses. For a country that constantly prides itself as the world’s first modern democracy, America does a terrible job at making its own citizens feel empowered.

In 2013, the Legatum Institute ranked the U.S. 11th among 142 countries in terms of governance, a drop from 9th place in 2011. Another report, the Rule of Law Index 2014, found that the U.S. was ranked 19th, wedged between France and Uruguay. More soberly, the U.S. wasn’t even ranked in the top 15 countries with respect to the index’s 9 rating factors (i.e., constraints on government powers, absence of corruption, open government, fundamental rights, order and security, regulatory environment, civil and criminal justice)– on these factors, its position ranged from 17th to 27th among the 99 ranked countries.

Hardly an exemplar to follow. I’m not sure how much American-style “democracy” has to offer Burma. Here are a few reasons why.

Special interests and lobbying

Lobbying is simply a form of legalized peddling, yet it’s so commonplace in the American democracy. Lobbyists spend billions of dollars each year–$3.24 billion in 2013–all to influence the government’s policy decisions and legislative outcomes. These self-serving special interest groups advocate for narrow industry interests that often run against the best interests of the American people.

America’s income tax system is notoriously complicated. Ever wonder why? Tax software makers actively lobby to prevent the federal tax collection agency (the much beloved Internal Revenue Service) from automatically filing income taxes for citizens, even though this could generate billions of dollars in savings each year. Lobbying also explains why the recent spate of mass shootings throughout the country has failed to produce meaningful change in American law and policy. And the list goes on and on and on, everything from excessive use of antibiotics in livestock (a major culprit of growing antibiotic resistance in humans) and groundwater contamination by industry, to extensive use of pesticides and herbicides banned in other countries (a fine example is widespread application of atrazine, an endocrine disruptor now banned in Europe).

A 2014 study in Perspectives on Politics (looking at 1,779 American policy issues) came to this conclusion:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.

Translation: The U.S. is an oligarchy representing the narrow economic and business interests of the well-heeled. Not that we really needed a study to validate the current state of affairs.

Seeing that many of Burma’s most influential industry associations are chaired by Burmese politicians and military members, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine collusion and corruption are endemic. Business interests are already entrenched in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw. The U.S. Treasury’s recent blacklisting of Aung Thaung, a Pyithu Hluttaw representative and one of Burma’s wealthiest parliamentarians (from various business interests, including construction and banking) highlights just how sensitive this arena is.

Partisan redistricting

In about 3 out of 4 American states, politicians can set their constituencies’ boundaries, whereas other Western democracies typically assign that responsibility to independent commissions. This presents an obvious conflict of interest, as politicians can easily game the system and redraw electoral districts tilted in their political party’s favor. Commonly called gerrymandering (Vox has a more detailed explanation), redistricting, in effect, allows politicians to handpick their voters, win easier elections and distort legislative representation, diluting the importance of the popular vote. Consequently, many of the country’s electoral districts have taken on quite unusual shapes. Gerrymandering explains why the 2012 election saw Republicans take the lower house despite losing the popular vote by 1.4 million votes.

In Burma, the 2008 Constitution tasks the Union Election Commission (UEC) with the responsibility to designate constituencies, while the 2010 Pyithu Hluttaw Election Law caps the number of constituencies at 330, currently tied to the number of townships (meaning for now, every township is a constituency). However, the UEC is not even an independent body. Instead, it acts more like an arm of the executive branch because the commission is chaired by presidential appointees. Who can really vouch for the UEC’s independence when military officers have been appointed to the body, and when its chairman, Tin Aye, a former lieutenant-general, is closely aligned with the Union Solidarity and Development Party (even though the 2010 Union Election Commission Law could disqualify him because of his political leanings)? I certainly can’t cast a vote of confidence.

Political polarization

A related phenomenon, the polarization of American politics, is at the core of governmental dysfunction, casting a dark shadow. In the past few decades, the ideological gap between Republicans and Democrats has grown substantially. During other time periods, American democracy has fared pretty well in the past because of compromise. However, in recent years, the attitude among elected officials has become more “all-or-nothing,”  reducing the government’s ability to react to pressing matters or even the mundane, like Senate approval of presidential nominees. A 2012 Harvard Business Review article writes:

The real problem with American politics is the growing tendency among politicians to pursue victory above all else—to treat politics as war—which runs counter to basic democratic values and may be crippling Washington’s ability to reach solutions that capture the smartest thinking of both camps.

Ideological differences alone are not dangerous. However, they are crippling when they stall legislation and funding. And part of this is institutionally driven, by two year election cycles that don’t incentivize problem-solving but instead reward extremities in ideology and voting records. Several American legislators have left Congress because of this paralysis.

Burma’s authoritarian past (and present) hasn’t been kind to political dissent. However, political polarization is widening with greater, if limited, discourse, between the camps aligned with the military and those aligned with civilians. One can only speculate on how contentious the 2015 elections will be, given that all parliamentary seats will be up for grabs. In time for the elections, the USDP is already seeking to change the electoral system for Burman-majority regions to proportional representation (i.e., a party that won 12% of votes would gain 12% of seats), which would leverage the USDP’s well-oiled and established political machine to the detriment of the opposition parties.

Expensive campaigns and poorly run elections

Money wins elections, American elections, at least. A study of 6 American election cycles (2000-2010) found that the top spender won the overwhelming majority of elections. In the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, 93% of top spending candidates won; in the Senate, it was 83%. Unfortunately, the importance of money in American politics precludes potential candidates who can’t secure access to donors but otherwise could make meaningful contributions to the legislature. It also takes away from American legislators who have to interrupt their legislative sessions, to fundraise money for their so-called campaign war chests. The quaint idea of a congressman and his wife walking door-to-door to hand out election pins to constituents is fiction.

Moreover, American election campaigns are becoming more and more expensive. In 2012, $6,285,557,223 were spent on elections, the most expensive in American history. And recent Supreme Court rulings have opened the doors to untraceable megadonors that can sway elections, all in the name of free speech.

In spite of all this money, Americans have engineered an abysmally inefficient electoral system. I’ll give you an example. On the November 4 election, I’ll be voting for 14 judges, ranging from the district to the state levels, even though this is practically unheard of in other countries. Even our voter registration system still largely relies on 19th century methods, which saw 1.8 million dead people show up on voter registrations in 2012.

The U.S. also has a proud tradition of wasteful special elections that constantly crop up throughout the year, elections that see small voter turnouts, just to temporarily fill vacant seats for the remainder of the term. Unfortunately, Burma has a terribly inefficient system of poaching ministers from sitting members of parliament, who must vacate their seats in accordance with the 2008 Constitution (in other countries like Singapore, MPs appointed as ministers continue to sit as active legislators). Consequently, as of September, there are 35 vacant seats in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, mostly from presidential appointments to cabinet. But the UEC cancelled the 2014 by-elections to fill the vacant seats, a decision welcomed by the NLD:

“As we’d said earlier, the by-elections wouldn’t result in any significant changes. It would just be a waste of time and money,” Nyan Win said. “Now, we will prepare to do our best in the 2015 general elections,” he said.

A beauty among lepers?

All I’ve done is scratch the surface. Among Western democracies, the United States falls short. However, as compared to most of Asia, the States’ political system is still light years ahead. Perhaps I’m jaded. I mean, I am considerably lucky to live in a nation with a historically stable political system, guided by a solid set of established core values. But the American democracy that I first grew to love and cherish in history books is ailing. There’s a lot of work to be done, yet the political will is not there.

But Burma could do a lot more as it treads ever so slightly toward democracy, more so than an established democracy like the U.S. As academic David Steinberg notes:

Authoritarian governments are better equipped to institute reforms, for they have the power. In representative governments, whether unequivocally democratic or discipline-flourishing, reforms are more difficult.

Other countries have already tried and tested an array of policies, legislation and institutional reforms. The knowledge is out there. Burma is in an excellent position to learn from the mistakes of its predecessors. Like the saying goes, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”


4 thoughts on “Is democracy what Burma really needs?

  1. Wagaung says:

    Very telling Shwe Mann’s remark to Hillary Clinton about watching old episodes of The West Wing. Ne Win at least got his men to get some books on socialism from the library though only after he’d staged the coup. The literacy rate among the top brass must have gone farther down since. Interesting albeit unsurprising (since he’s been one of the top junta apologists/appeasers) remark also by David Steinberg, admittedly an academic, seeming to advocate authoritarian governments for instituting reforms. Bring back King Anawrahta!

    The low turn out in the latest US midterm elections has been an international embarassment to some. The cost of election campaigns, the business lobbies and the practically incestuous relationship between political and business elites reminded me of what the late Gore Vidal, himself a scion of American aristocracy, once famously said about America having only one party – the Property Party with two right wings.

    • Aung Kyaw says:

      It’s so telling, the lack of knowledge in the public sector, for high level officials to be looking to a fictional American drama for advice on how to run their government.

      With respect to the Steinberg’s comment on authoritarian governments, I do have to say he has a point. Stable regimes can steer long-term policy (so long as there’s a strong technocratic capacity to create and implement sound policy) and whereas democratic ones tend to be distracted with election cycles and populist sentiments that don’t necessarily have long term interests in mind. For instance, the momentum of China’s unbridled economic growth has been largely sustained by a stable one-party government, which has, of course, come at a cost. But given that Burma lacks an educated civil service and policy direction, I’m not sure there’s a better alternative. This Foreign Policy article on Burma’s political gridlock oddly reminds me of the gridlock in Washington, D.C.

  2. Wagaung says:

    What a shining example China, isn’t it for effectiveness? That was exactly my rather flippant point referring to Anawrahta re Steinberg’s point, no albatross round your neck called representative democracy or checks and balances.

    So what gives? It’s political will, stupid… to borrow the other Clinton’s famous winning campaign slogan. It is I’m afraid conspicuous in its absence here, to strive not for their own wealth and aggrandizement but for the country’s economic development to benefit the majority, not least internal peace, and dare I say it, rule of law oh so malleable in their hands just like democracy designed and implemented to suit themselves. Still it’s pretty novel to them, isn’t it the whole democratisation malarkey? No wonder there’s a learning curve, sincere or fake, definitely some amount of muddling through. It happens to the best of them liberal democracies, doesn’t it?

    Seriously though, do we want to go back/regress as hinted by the learned professor? Has it occurred to anyone in polite circles that the so called “dictatorship of the proletariat” or, to take another Chinese paradigm (love this word), “people’s democratic dictatorship” might be a contender?

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