The Democracy Route
Some are firm-footed, others are limping, but all the countries in South Asia are pursuing goals of democracy.
South Asia is a cluster of democracies that includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It has also the pride of being home to India, the world’s largest and successful democracy. In many respects India may be cited as a model. For instance; there is no interference by the army in administrative affairs whether domestic or external. The army defers to civilian control as is the norm under a democratic dispensation.
Fundamental rights of citizens are protected. The judiciary and the Election Commission are independent. Even the Central Board of Investigation (CBI) is free to catch the largest fish. There are no Caesar’s wives.
Elections are free, transparent, fair and, above all, peaceful. Unlike in Pakistan, there was not a single report of snatching ballot boxes and firing at polling stations during the Lok Sabha polls last year, lasting several weeks and conducted all over the vast country from Arunachal Pradesh and Andaman Islands in the east to Gujarat in the west and from Himachal Pradesh and Punjab in the north to Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the south.
When the BJP won with a thumping majority, the Congress government passed the baton on to the winner. And that was that. No hard feelings. Instead of hurling allegations of dhandli against the winner, as is the routine in Pakistan, the Congress got busy with licking its wounds and making efforts to find out what went wrong - why the party that gave Indians their freedom from British rule was now shunned and discarded?
The same scenario was repeated in the recent elections to the Delhi state assembly, where the Aam Admi Party (AAP) led by Arvind Kejriwal trounced the BJP with a score of 67 to three in a house of 70. Again, all went peacefully without any murmur of protest from any quarter. And the BJP that rules over India took the rout calmly.
In Afghanistan, the presidential election of 2014 triggered a dispute between Ashraf Abdul Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah as to who was the real winner. Ultimately, with US mediation, it was agreed that Ghani should be the president, while a new office of chief executive was created to pacify Abdullah.
Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary form of government and universal suffrage. The King is the head of state, while the prime minister is the head of government. In the latest elections held in 2013, the People's Democratic Party (PDP) came to power and its leader Tshering Tobgay assumed the office of Prime Minister. Ensconced safely in the Himalayas, the tiny kingdom remains free of political or social upheavals; an oasis of peace.
In sharp contrast, Bangladesh remains in the grip of endless political chaos. Arson, murder, mayhem and prolonged hartals - often stretching to 72 or more continuous hours, dislocating normal life, have become routine. Sheikh Hasina, chief of the Awami League, who came to power at the head of a 14-party alliance, governs the country with fascist methods.
The elections in BD were a farce because the 20-party conglomerate led by Bangladesh National Party ( BNP) president, Begum Khaleda Zia, who was the principal rival in the election contest, boycotted the elections when Hasina rejected her demand for elections to be held under a caretaker government. The result is a one-party government.
As eyewash, Jatiya Party - though an ally of the ruling party - has been propped up as the opposition. Party chief Hussain Mohammad Ershad has been appointed Prime Minister’s Special Envoy, while his wife Rowshan Ershad performs as leader of the opposition in
Disregarding repeated calls from the UN, USA, Britain and the EU, to hold fresh elections and enter a dialogue with her rival, Sheikh Hasina continues with an iron-fisted approach to BNP’s agitation. In one move her government virtually imprisoned Khaleda Zia in the latter’s office.
The Maldives and Nepal are also peaceful democracies. The former is a republic with a presidential system and an independent judiciary. The president is the “Head of State and Head of Government and the Commanderin-Chief of the Armed Forces and the Police.”
An interesting feature of the judicial system in the Maldives is the reference to Shari'ah. According to the Constitution, "The judges are independent, and subject only to the Constitution and the law. When deciding matters on which the Constitution or the law is silent, judges must consider Islamic Shari'ah."
Nepal’s debut into democracy is quite recent. It abandoned an age-old monarchy and its Hindu identity in 2008 to become a “secular democratic republic.” But political tensions and fights over power-sharing continued. Governments were toppled at the drop of a hat. As a result, the Constitution could not be drafted within the stipulated time and the constituent Assembly had to be dissolved. Fresh elections for a new constituent assembly were held in 2014 and a consensus prime minister was elected. Though a new constitution is yet to be promulgated, but Nepal has been rid of the prolonged civil war with the Maoists since 2005. They are now part of mainstream politics which augurs well for the future of democracy in Nepal.
Among all South Asian states, Pakistan stands apart in the matter of politics. During the 67 years since its birth, it has witnessed short periods of elected government interspersed by long years of military rule. Disregard of democratic principles led to the secession of East Pakistan. It is also a unique feature of Pakistan’s politics that the army directs if not dictates the foreign policy.
In Pakistan, rigging and violence during elections are routine. The term jhurlu was therefore coined very early when ballots were literally swept with a broom into ballot boxes by officials representing the ruling party candidates. And it was the allegation of massive rigging that led to the downfall of Prime Minister, Z. A. Bhutto in 1977.
Even today, Pakistan Tehreek-eInsaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan accuses the ruling party of rigging in the last elections and agitates for a recount of votes in a number of constituencies.
Yet, withal, democracy has remained in place in the country since 2008. One government completed its full five-year term which is a record, and a new government took over in 2013. If this trend is sustained, it should augur well for the future of democracy in Pakistan.
In the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, however, democracy thrives despite political ups and downs. The civil war that raged for 26 years since 1983 ended in 2009 with the total rout of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and the death of their leader Vilupillai Prabhakaran in action. The country, however, remains plagued by communal conflict between the majority Sinhala Buddhists on the one side and the minority Tamils and Muslims on the other. Tamils were also ostracized because of suspicion that they were sympathetic towards the LTTE due to ethnic and religious affinity. Lately, however, the government has been making efforts to bring them into the political fold.
Presidential elections were held on January 8 this year in which Maithripala Sirsena, health minister in the Rajapaksa government, defeated the incumbent two-term president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was seeking a third, consecutive term. Sworn in on February 9, Sirsena’s first pledge was to abolish the executive presidency during his first 100 days in office, because that was the principal election issue. He is also expected to redress the political grievances of the Tamils.
With this scenario, the overall political environment in South Asia seems to hold promise for the development of a healthy environment for democracy to progress. The writer is a senior political analyst and former editor of Southasia.