What is the role of political representation by ethnic parties in a multi-ethnic state that has undergone a transition from military rule, and is seeking to resolve protracted intrastate conflicts? The present article examines this question through a contextual case study of ethnic parties in Myanmar – a state that is characterised by unresolved ethnic grievances and conflicts; a political transition that has created new opportunities for ethnic representation; and multiple ethnic parties making representative claims on behalf of ethnic groups. Based on a mixed methods approach, the article documents that ethnic parties have been relatively ineffective in ensuring formal and descriptive representation and have had limited possibilities for substantive representation of ethnic interests. The article also identifies key explanations for the weak electoral performance of ethnic parties, emphasising party fragmentation and vote-splitting as well as weak party institutionalisation and limited capacity to make representative claims. Finally, the article analyses strategies for party-building, in preparation for the 2020 election. Based on the common emphasis on vote-splitting, most ethnic states have seen initiatives to merge parties, while a few parties have also sought to develop their political platform and sector policies. The article concludes that ethnic parties may gain improved formal representation after the next election but questions about the parties’ capacity for substantive representation remains. The 2020 election will thus be a new test for how ethnic voters see themselves best represented, in the light of competing representative claims and past experiences: by ethnic parties or non-ethnic democracy parties?
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