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Electoral System, Ethnic Parties, and Party System Stability in Myanmar

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Party system stability is core to new democracies. In Myanmar’s 2015 general elections, more than 90 political parties competed but only 11 won seats. Will the proliferation of parties undermine Myanmar’s party system stability? Given its single-member plurality electoral system and ethno-geographically segregated electoral landscape, what kind of ethnic parties are likely to be electable? This paper addresses these questions by examining how Myanmar’s electoral system affects the electability of small ethnic parties and party system stability. Specifically, we compare the mechanical and psychological effects of the electoral system on ethnic parties and voters since the creation of an ethnically segregated geographical landscape after 2008. For mechanical effects, we compare the degree of disproportionality, extra or ‘bonus’ seats, and how malapportionment affects small ethnic parties. For psychological effects, we examine how electoral experiences shape voting behavior and ethnic party strategy. Our findings, based on limited electoral data and recent party developments, indicate that, in addition to the mechanical effects of electoral institutions, the electoral success of ethnic parties are dependent on the geographic distribution of seats, concentration of voter support, strategic fielding of candidates in underpopulated constituencies, and co-ordination with other parties to prevent vote splitting.


La stabilité des partis électorales est un élément central pour les nouvelles démocraties. Dans les élections du 2015 au Myanmar, plus de 90 partis ont participé, mais ils n’ont gagne que 11 sièges. Est-ce que la prolifération des parties va nuire à la stabilité du système partitaire du Myanmar ? Compte tenu de son système électoral uninominal majoritaire à un tour, et de son paysage électoral ségrégué en base a des lignes ethno-géographiques, quel genre de partis ethniques sont susceptibles d’être élus ? Cette étude répond à ces questions en examinant comment le système électoral au Myanmar influence soit l’éligibilité des petits partis ethniques, soit la stabilité du système pluripartite. Plus spécifiquement, on compare les effets mécaniques et psychologiques du système électorale sur les partis et les électeurs ethniques depuis la création, en 2008, d’un paysage géographique informé par la ségrégation ethnique. En ce qui concerne les effets mécaniques, on confronte le dégrée de disproportionnalité, les sièges ‘extra’ ou ‘bonus’, et comment le déséquilibre dans l’approportionnément (ou découpage électorale) influence les petits partis ethniques. En ce qui concerne les effets psychologiques, nous examinons comment l’expérience électorale influence le comportement électoral et les stratégies des partis ethniques. Nos résultats - bases sur des données électorales limités, et sur les développements les plus récents des partis politiques - indiquent que, outre les effets mécaniques des institutions électorales, le succès électorale des partis ethniques dépendent de : la distribution géographique des sièges; la concentration du support électorale; la présentation stratégique des candidats dans des circonscriptions sous-peuplées; et de la coordination avec d’autres partis afin de prévenir une division du vote.

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Fig. 1

Source Map recreated by authors based on sources from Smith (1999)

Fig. 2

Source Created by authors

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  1. See Table 2 for full list of parties and abbreviations.

  2. As Duverger’s law states, “the simple-majority single-ballot system favours the two-party system” (1954).

  3. There are trade-offs between representation and accountability, the ballot structure, district magnitude, effective threshold, malapportionment, assembly size, and electoral formulae that interact differently depending on the spatial distribution of voters (Lijphart 1994; Norris 1997). All these factors have an effect on the representativeness of the Lower House and the development of the party system.

  4. See (Barkan 1998; Ziegfeld 2013) for cases with similar findings.

  5. See Coakley (2008, p. 770) for explanations of how ethnic parties challenge more established parties.

  6. See Zuber (2013), Coakley (2008), and Gunther and Diamond (2003) for ethnic party actions and roles.

  7. S. 161 of the 2008 Constitution provides representation in States/Regions for minority groups without a designated SAZ in that state but make up at least 0.1% of the Union population (TNI 2014).

  8. A group is considered regionally-based if they are located in one region/in particular regions that are easily distinguishable on a map; see GeoEPR dataset (Wucherpfennig et al. 2011).

  9. In 2015, ANP won 12 seats; SNLD won 12 seats; TPNP and PAO won 3 seats each; and ZCD won 2 seats (ICG 2015).

  10. See The Carter Report for details of Myanmar’s malapportionment (2016, 6).

  11. The average constituency size was found to be 105,524 voters. The 10 smallest townships averaged 3574 registered voters, the 10 largest townships averaged over 297,000 (The Carter Center 2016, 27).

  12. See Blais and Indridason (2007), Ibenskas (2016), and Ferrara and Herron (2005) for motivations behind party mergers.

  13. CNDP secretary: “Chin parties need to consolidate for greater effectiveness” (Lwin 2018a, b); Chairman of KNP: “the appeal of state-based parties was rising among voters in Kayah because they believed the NLD was failing to fulfil promises…” (Soe 2018).


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This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). We are grateful to Elin Bjarnegård, Francesca Refsum Jensenius, Mala Htun, and Kristian Stokke for their comments on an earlier version of this paper presented at “Workshop on Development Challenges in Myanmar” at Uppsala University, Sweden, 14–15 Feb 2019. We would also like to thank the editor, two anonymous reviewers and Paul Minnoleti for their suggestions, and to Elaina Nguyen and William Li for their research assistance.

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Correspondence to Cassandra Preece.

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Article prepared for the Special Issue for the European Journal DevelopmentResearch “Development Challenges in Myanmar”.

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Tan, N., Preece, C. Electoral System, Ethnic Parties, and Party System Stability in Myanmar. Eur J Dev Res 32, 431–456 (2020).

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