For South Asia, the year 2018 was the year of important democratic elections in Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Maldives, and Bangladesh. What makes these general elections important is the political process and hopes for stronger democracies. South Asia, a region dominantly ruled by the colonial powers and oligarchs in the past, followed by independence and political transitions, has been a centre of political developments since the mid-1950s.
At present, all the South Asian countries — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan — are democracies including Nepal and Bhutan which went through a process of political transition from centuries old monarchy to flourishing functional democracies in the last two decades. However, the journey of many of the South Asian countries from colony or monarchy to democracy has for decades witnessed the looming shadow of political instability. Past fallouts of democratic institutions amidst violence and socio-ethnic differences have contributed mainly towards making South Asia one of the most politically vulnerable regions in the world.
Despite political deadlocks and the beginning of democratic development especially in Nepal and Bhutan, the year 2018 witnessed the successful completion of general elections in five South Asian countries.
A new democratic government led by the United Communist Alliance under the leadership of Khadka Prasad Oli was appointed on February 15, 2018. After a decade-long Maoist insurgency and clashes between the people and the royal institution, Nepal emerged as a democratic republican state in 2008. It was the third democratic exercise since 2008 where the people of Nepal voted to elect the 275 members of the House of the Representatives on November 26 and December 7, 2017. Also, it was for the first time that the parliamentary elections took place under the purview of the newly implemented constitution in 2015 after several failed attempts by the government to unite the political forces to find common ground since 2008.
The communist front was driven by the alliance of two rival communist parties, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) and the Maoists who later agreed to merge and form a unified Communist Party of Nepal. Later, as per the agreement, the two left parties later merged into one despite their differences at the ideological and political levels. A critical aspect of the elections moved around the hope of stability in governance because since the beginning of its democratic journey, there have been more than six Prime Ministers, and none have been able to complete a five-year term. With the Communists and the Maoists joining hands in 2018, the prospects for political stability were high. Meanwhile, the within the unified Communist Party had begun to come in the open due to KP Oli’s failure to balance the power structure in the party and failure at the governance level.
Bhutan held its third National Assembly elections to elect members for the Lower House of the Parliament on October 18, 2018. A country with unique political and economic features, especially its successful experiment of Gross National Happiness (GNH) to index economic growth and human development instead of Gross Domestic Product and its geostrategic location between the two giant Asian economies, India and China, has always attracted global attention. In 2007 the King of Bhutan opened up the gateway voluntarily for democracy, considering the long struggle between the people and the King in neighboring Nepal which had resulted in the fall of the monarchy in Nepal. In the 2018 elections, the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), a party formed in 2013, emerged victorious by winning 30 out of 47 seats in the house. With a population of 8 million people, the 2018 political contest among four major parties was centered on the agenda of development rather than foreign policy during the 2013 elections.
The general elections in five countries in South Asia
have brought starkly different outcomes for their respective local politics as
well as a lasting effect on regional and international politics.
The general elections in five countries in South Asia have brought starkly different outcomes for their respective local politics as well as a lasting effect on regional and international politics.
Interestingly, the battle for regional supremacy between India and China for Bhutan has played a crucial role in shaping the political wave of the country. Despite failed attempts to establish diplomatic relations, China has been hoping for new leadership to alter Bhutan’s strategic bonhomie towards Beijing from New Delhi. The 2018 elections saw a rise of political questioning for development and employment in the country which had never been attempted under the monarchy. Hence, as Bhutan moves into a more nuanced democratic process, the 2018 elections are a hallmark to look for democratic maturity and diplomatic experiments.
The 2018 general elections in Pakistan witnessed the fallout of the traditional political players and the rise of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan as the Prime Minister. The structure of Pakistan is a critical factor in instability within the country, region and at the international level. Also, Pakistan’s failure to come to terms with its neighbors and the US has remained the center of strategic need. The presence and killing of Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and the free hand given to Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai, on its soil have showcased the deep-rooted role of Islamic fundamentalism and the Pakistani Army in state affairs. In this light, the prospects for democracy have hardly been promising considering the coups and misrule by the Pakistani Army in the past. Moreover, a clash between different ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities has kept Pakistan on an unstable political turf.
Therefore, the 2018 elections could hardly see any abstract of optimism towards political stability and development. Even though Imran Khan’s arrival has seen an influx of new players in Pakistani politics, the functioning and approach of the present day Pakistan concerning domestic politics and foreign policy issues remain unchanged. Also, Pakistan’s all-weather friendship with China has not only unbalanced the strategic equation between the US and Pakistan, but deaf attention to India’s security concerns by Pakistan have also marred any considerable prospects for regional cooperation. In his victory address, the newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan had promised to work towards adopting peaceful means to resolve the long-standing issues with India. However, after six months in office, Imran Khan has failed to assure the South Asian countries of abolishing the terror factories on its soil, and as a result, the annual summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation has failed to materialize.
A strategically important island nation in the Indian Ocean, Maldives underwent its on September 23, 2018. Amidst the fears of a coup and poll rigging by then President Abdulla Yameen, opposition candidate Ibrahim Solih won with a majority. With many of the popular figures including two former Presidents jailed by Yameen, clouds of uncertainty had taken over the election euphoria.
The elections marked the arrival of a stable political space as it had been a decade of political misadventures by the former administration. On the foreign policy front, close ties between Yameen and China have seen an immediate decline under the new President Solih after he chose to visit New Delhi for his first state visit instead of Beijing. However, the peaceful conduct of the 2018 elections and the transfer of power from Yameen to Solih have contributed to the increased political stability in the country. With a bumpy rise to the Presidency, the immediate challenges before Solih include resolving the housing and freshwater crises, freeing and reintegration of the political prisoners into mainstream politics, balancing diplomatic ties with India and China, and making a global call for the environmental challenges that the island country faces today.
The was the last democratic exercise in the region for the year. It was the third time in a row the Awami League, led by its leader Sheikh Hasina, won the popular vote and she claimed her third term as Prime Minister. In the absence of a strong opposition due to the leading opposition leaders serving jail terms and in the presence of good infrastructural development and economic indicators during her previous two terms, Sheikh Hasina managed a majority in the national parliament with 90 percent of the total vote. Additionally, her record on the foreign policy front, especially improved ties with China and India, contributed to her victory.
After the declaration of the results on December 31, the opposition alleged foul play by the Awami League, including influencing voters and tampering with the results. Also, the country’s assertive stance towards controlling the free press invited criticism of the government by Western countries including the United States. In this context, doubts began to mount if the democratic process was given the first priority, as cases of corruption and political coercion increased tenfold in the last ten years against the Awami League.
Democracy is an ever-developing process which is constrained by circumstances. The general elections in five countries in South Asia have brought starkly different outcomes for their respective local politics as well as a lasting effect on regional and international politics. Against a backdrop of fallen democratic institutions and defiance of the democratic process, general elections in these countries open new doors for political stability in the respective countries and the region at large. However, the ongoing power struggle in Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh will remain critical for their economic development and for regional cooperation.