August 18, 2016 12:00 am JST
Commentary

Renaud Egreteau -- Myanmar's emerging parliamentary conundrum

Growing criticism within Myanmar's political circles about the erosion of parliamentary power is being directed at Aung San Suu Kyi's fledgling leadership of the country. Several lawmakers, particularly veterans of the earlier parliament which sat from 2011 to 2016, have publicly criticized the heavy hand of the ruling National League for Democracy, which dominates the executive branch. Despite earlier hopes that a revived parliament could play a transformative role in post-junta Myanmar, some critics are now asking whether the institution will become steadily marginalized in the NLD-led political system.

Thanks to its resounding victory in general elections last November, the NLD holds a commanding position in the new parliament. The party boasts some 382 members of a total 664 in the two parliamentary houses, or a combined 58% of all seats. With such numbers, the NLD-led government headed by President Htin Kyaw, a close ally of Suu Kyi's, can set the legislative agenda and easily ram through laws. In most legislative votes, apart from those to change the constitution, it can even ignore military-appointed lawmakers, who hold a combined 25% of all seats in the national and provincial legislative bodies. One brigadier general, who is a lower house legislator, even publicly deplored the emergence of a Tocquevillian form of "tyranny of the majority" in parliament.

Critics have particularly focused on the new government's apparent dominance of the legislative process. Lawmakers fear being overshadowed by the NLD hierarchy and its iconic leader encroaching on parliament's legislative role.

On the face of it, such a trend might appear to run counter to the new administration's democratic pledges. There is, however, nothing unusual, or even alarming, about enhanced influence of the ruling party over parliament. In Myanmar, it is a result not only of the country's first-past-the-post voting system, which contributes to a "winner takes all" mentality, but also of the institutional framework established by the 2008 constitution, which imposed a hybrid presidential system in which the executive branch takes the lead in both policymaking and law-making. It is the government -- not the legislature -- that is constitutionally obliged to provide substance to policy debates, initiate policy changes, and potentially determine the timing of the legislative agenda, as in any representative parliamentary democracy.

This pattern was already apparent in the early days of Myanmar's parliamentary democracy in the 1950s. Legislation drafted by individual lawmakers was rarely approved and bills prepared by the successive governments of prime ministers U Nu and Ba Swe dominated the legislative agenda. Government lawmakers were simply informed and briefed a few days before the opening of each parliamentary session by party leaders attending meetings of the ruling party in Yangon, then Myanmar's capital. Government bills, although discussed by the opposition during brief plenary sessions, were seldom voted down.

Forgotten precedents

Needless to say, this was also the case in the heyday of the socialist, single-party legislature between 1974 and 1988. The Burma Socialist Program Party, founded by General Ne Win in 1962, routinely held a congress the day before the unicameral parliament was scheduled to assemble to outline the bills that lawmakers had to unanimously approve.

Academic research on legislative affairs has long demonstrated that in most democratic legislatures around the world, including the Westminster model of parliamentary government, there exists a "90% rule." The executive branch proposes at least 90% of the legislative agenda, and at least 90% of what has been proposed by the government is approved by parliament.

This rule seems to have been followed in Myanmar during the previous legislature convened between 2011 and 2016. Of the 232 laws enacted, most were originally prepared by the president's office, or one of the ministries, or a few other national-level bodies, such as the Union Election Commission or the Office of the Attorney General.

Only a minority of draft bills discussed in either house or the joint assembly were proposed by individual lawmakers. One bill, for instance, focused on ethnic affairs and was initially drafted in 2012 by T. Khun Myatt, an ethnic Kachin and member of the ruling party, who was selected as deputy speaker of the lower house this year.

Former and current lawmakers say the low number of bills drafted by individual legislators is due to several factors besides constitutional obstacles. The obvious hindrances include a lack of law-related expertise, a heavy workload for lawmakers and often, a plain lack of interest. Legislative drafts already prepared by bureaucrats and government ministers are easier to deal with, many lawmakers told me in interviews.

Same old patterns

There is nothing wrong with this pattern. Being reactive and letting the government initiate the law-making process is by no means a sign of abdication for a parliamentary institution. Other representative assemblies in presidential or hybrid political systems, such as in France or post-military Latin American countries, have displayed similar types of "reactive" behavioral patterns. They were far from being seen as mere rubber stamp assemblies tamed by powerful executives.

During the previous Myanmar legislature, rising tensions between the supporters of Shwe Mann, the lower house speaker, and President Thein Sein, head of state until March 2016, fostered a healthy competition between the legislative and executive branches in the first post-junta administration. The Union Solidarity and Development Party, the party associated with the defunct military regime and which swept the controversial 2010 polls, increasingly had to cope with leadership rivalries and factionalism. These internecine struggles -- reflecting the ambitions of then-Speaker Shwe Mann, a former joint chief of staff of the armed forces -- made parliament appear more proactive than it actually was.

Having suffered similar internal rifts when Suu Kyi was under house arrest until her release in 2010, the NLD does not seem ready to allow such dissent to re-emerge in its own ranks. The party clearly intends to keep its lawmakers in line, while providing little leeway for the civilian cabinet ministers.

But that does not mean the present NLD legislature is bound to become a passive institution. Parliament can perform other functions beside legislating and considering draft bills imposed from above. A parliament is expected to represent constituencies. It also scrutinizes the work and behavior of other government branches. These two functions of oversight and representation have received less attention in Myanmar.

In 2013, the last legislature passed a law on constituency development funds to foster small development programs and local public works. The intense debates among national and provincial lawmakers over the central government's distribution of these funds, which are granted to each of Myanmar's 330 constituencies, attest to the importance lawmakers have recently attached to their mission of representation. They indeed must "deliver" tangible benefits to their voters. The extension of a school, the purchase of solar panels or the construction of safe water facilities can easily be construed by constituents as the results of the influence of their representatives -- if the latter advertise their action properly.

Likewise, lawmakers are receiving training in auditing and financial scrutiny, along with civil servants seconded to the parliamentary bureaucracy. This points to a willingness to perform meaningful legislative oversight. It is indeed the parliament that is chiefly charged by the 2008 constitution with the responsibility of evaluating how public funds are used, how efficiently the government budget process is conducted and, ultimately, how other branches of government behave. This is most commonly done in closed-door committees as well as on a daily basis when the parliament is prorogued. No vote is needed to perform this oversight function and a minority of lawmakers, particularly from the opposition, can have a strong impact.

Myanmar's new parliamentary institutions, including their new members and staff, clearly need more time than the scant six months they have had to understand how to make the most of their legislative prerogatives and how to perform core legislative functions -- beyond the making and unmaking of laws. In a system controlled by the NLD, parliament still matters. But it will need more engagement and initiatives from individual lawmakers to strengthen its role beyond the mere discussion of laws.

Renaud Egreteau is a political scientist; his forthcoming book, "Caretaking Democratization: The Military and Political Change in Myanmar," will be published by Oxford University Press (New York) and Hurst (London) in September.

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