The Democ­racy Route

Some are firm-footed, oth­ers are limp­ing, but all the coun­tries in South Asia are pur­su­ing goals of democ­racy.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By S.G. Ji­la­nee

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

the par­lia­ment.

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.

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