South Asia can for the first time celebrate an important milestone. Democratically- elected governments are now in place in all of South Asia. Multi-party elections have been held in Bhutan, Pakistan, Nepal, Maldives, and most recently in Bangladesh.
But will the democratic trends of 2008 deepen in South Asia or will we look back on this historic moment as just a fleeting aberration? The portents in early 2009 are worrisome given the mutiny in Bangladesh, the protests over the decision to disbar Nawaz Sharif and his brother from the electoral process in Pakistan and the fact that a political solution to the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka remains to be worked out. The answer will depend on how both the newly-elected and other governments in the region set the stage for a more open and inclusive democratic process. This means listening to the opposition, bringing in greater transparency and paying attention to strengthening the institutions of democracy. Despite recent events, the very fact that democracy has taken root, howsoever tenuous, brings hope that we will one day reap its dividends.
Bangladesh may be seeing disturbances now, but it is significant that after two years of emergency rule and considerable uncertainty, parliamentary elections were held peacefully on December 29, 2008, returning democracy to the country, with a record turnout of 87 per cent of the 80 million registered voters. The election was credible and transparent and one of the most non-violent in the history of the country. The Awami League-led grand alliance won a landslide victory, securing over two-thirds of the 300 seats in the National Assembly. How the new government will foster working relationships across parties, and ensure that all parties, especially those in the minority, feel that they are part of the democratic process will be an important measure of success.
In Pakistan, despite the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, elections were held on February 18, 2008, that led to a victory for the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Yousaf Raza Gilani was elected Prime Minister and Asif Zardari, Bhutto’s husband, eventually won the presidency after General Pervez Musharraf’s resignation that brought eight years of military rule to an end. The people of Pakistan fought long and hard for a return to democracy. But now that the apex court has barred both former premier Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab, from contesting elections it can only be hoped that this will not lead to a political crisis.
Notwithstanding a history of violence, Nepal’s Constituent Assembly election on April 10, 2008, turned a new page in the country’s political history. The positive outcome of a smooth election gave a big boost to the peace process. A refreshing outcome of the election is that women now comprise more than 30 per cent of the elected members. Much hope now rests on the Constituent Assembly to meet the expectations and aspirations of Nepal’s diverse communities in shaping a ‘New Nepal’. Given Nepal’s huge development challenges there is no other viable option.
How to deepen this process of democratisation is now on the minds of key political leaders in these countries and on the minds of UN agencies — such as the United Nations Development Programme — that have helped in these electoral processes. The establishment or strengthening of independent election commissions and ensuring the transparency of the electoral process have been a key step in the democratisation process in these countries. Further progress requires these commissions to be empowered to enforce the law and impose penalties whenever political parties violate the electoral code or other regulations. Deepening democracy through inclusive participation also means avoiding a winner-takes-all approach and instead providing space to all elected parties to meaningfully participate in the political processes.
If people vote, but experience no real improvement in their daily lives, they may become disillusioned with the democratic process. If governments are strengthened, but they are not accountable to the people, then this process may benefit the few and not the many. In many South Asian countries, civil society is already playing an important role in delivering services.
Organising inclusive and competitive elections is thus only one step — a means to an end — which is the building and deepening of democratic, inclusive and prosperous societies. Elections remain a powerful tool in this process, as they raise the expectations that governing institutions and processes will be responsive to the rights and concerns of all people, including the poor, marginalised and discriminated people.
Last year was not a very positive one in many respects. The global financial crisis and rising violence and terrorism in many parts of the world cast a long shadow over the impressive economic gains the Asia region had registered in the last decade. Yet the trend toward democracy in South Asia last year has been remarkably positive. Looking back, it is evident that this has not been an easy process and certainly could not have been predicted to go exactly as planned.
(Ajay Chhibber is UN Assistant Secretary General and Director of the United Nations Development Programme’s Regional Bureau for Asia and Pacific)