A Positive Development in South Asia: Democracy 3 June 2013
Many negative issues confront South Asian nations. Conversely, in the last decade, there has been one very positive development: the spread of democracy. All South Asian nations now are functioning democracies to some extent or another. While this political system is not yet entrenched, the trend is of increased democratic activity and systems.
India has long been a fully-functioning democracy, with its only blemish being the 21-month Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975-1977. Otherwise, elections have been held every five years, with power passing peacefully between political opponents. At the state level, New Delhi has, on occasions, imposed Governor’s Rule on a state having political difficulties, including where the ruling party (or parties) has lost its majority. This sometimes has been politically motivated. Next year, India must complete its next general election before June 2014.
The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is another entrenched democracy, with national elections held even during the Tamil insurgency. One current ‘cloud’ is whether elections will take place later this year for the Northern Province, the former Tamil Tigers’ stronghold, due to supposed national security concerns. Unlike other South Asian nations, Sri Lanka has elections every six years, with electors directly electing their parliament and president. The next elections are due in April 2016.
Democracy has been Bangladesh’s political system since 1991, when a two-party system began solidifying. Beforehand, this nation often endured military ‘interventions’. Bangladeshis experienced an Emergency from January 2007 to December 2008 due to violence and instability surrounding the (postponed) 2007 election. This ended when elections were finally held in late December 2008. The next elections are due around December this year.
Nepal is a stalled multi-party democracy, with political parties unable to agree on a new constitution. Consequently, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is administering Nepal via an Interim Government. In 2008, elections to a Constituent Assembly were held, after which the monarchy was abolished. New Constituent Assembly are due before December 2013, after which the new parliament must determine a new constitution. This will be important, given that Nepal had a civil war from 1996-2006.
In 2008, Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy with an elected 47-seat parliament. Under Bhutan’s Constitution, a two-thirds parliamentary majority can remove the king. Bhutanese have again been voting, with the first round of national elections completed on 31 May. A second round will take place on 13 July between the two largest parties.
The Maldives has moved from an autocratic to a multi-party presidential system, with the first presidential elections held in 2008 and Majlis (Assembly) elections in 2009. The presidential system is still frail, with the initial incumbent, Mohamed Nasheed, losing power in February 2012, possibly due to some untoward police involvement. The next presidential election is due in September 2013.
For half of its existence, Pakistan has endured military rule. In 2008, it moved from a being a ‘command’ democracy under General Musharraf’s tight control to a fully-fledged, elected parliamentary system. In May, the Pakistan Government completed its first full term in office ever, after which national and provincial elections were successfully conducted. Winning parties are now assuming office. An indirect presidential election is due for September.
In Afghanistan, elections were held in 2004 and 2009 (presidential) and 2005 and 2010 (parliamentary). The next are due in April 2014 (presidential) and 2015 (parliamentary). Importantly, these will take place as the International Security Assistance for Afghanistan significantly reduces its presence. Afghanistan also has a long tradition of holding Loya Jirgas (Grand Assemblies) in which tribal elders consult on issues of national significance.
Why has democracy been spreading throughout South Asia? The reasons vary. For Bangladesh and Pakistan, their militaries possibly have tired of having to rule difficult nations, and because this unpopular task distracts them from their primary task of defence. Bhutan’s development is due to some enlightened monarchs, with Nepal’s possibly the reverse: an unenlightened monarchy encouraged Nepalis to fight for democracy. In the Maldives, internal agitation, particularly by activists like Nasheed, succeeded. India also may have been a model for other South Asian nations to emulate.
In each nation, the increasing power of the media and the effects of globalisation led by democratic Western nations also have been factors. People are now more aware of their rights. Similarly, democratic forces in each nation appear to have matured as nations have stabilised. Equally, however, in each nation, the price of democracy remains eternal vigilance against non-democratic forces.
Christopher Snedden; 3 June 2013