Why you should care
As global freedoms seem to dwindle, South Asia provides a glimmer of hope.
The principal opposition leader in the Maldives, former President Mohamed Nasheed, was in exile. Several others were under arrest. And a day before the Indian Ocean archipelago voted in elections expected to return President Abdulla Yameen to power, his security agencies raided an opposition party’s offices. But by late evening on Sept. 23, what had seemed impossible had happened: Yameen’s increasingly authoritarian regime stood defeated. It wasn’t alone in that fate.
For decades, India, the world’s largest democracy, has stood as a sole beacon of relatively free and fair elections in South Asia. It’s been surrounded by nations that have had intermittent democratic journeys interrupted — at times brutally — by military coups and civilian dictatorships. But now, change is afoot in the world’s most densely populated region. Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and now the Maldives all have had democratic elections in the past eight months with a rare common outcome: The incumbent has been defeated.
In August this year, the cricketer turned politician Imran Khan was elected prime minister of Pakistan. In Nepal, K.P. Sharma Oli took over as the PM in February after his Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist) won parliamentary and local polls. The People’s Democratic Party that has ruled Bhutan since 2013 came in third in September parliamentary elections, and didn’t even make it to an October runoff between the top two parties. And in the Maldives, the opposition’s last-minute replacement for Nasheed as its candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, defeated Yameen by a wide margin, with 58 percent of the votes.
The picture in South Asia has some glimmers of hope.
Larry Diamond, senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution
These gains for democracy in South Asia are still fragile, cautions Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Ironically, for instance, India’s rank slipped from 32 to 42 this year in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. Still, at a time Washington-based watchdog Freedom House says democracy globally faces “its most serious crisis in decades,” Diamond says these shifts in South Asia offer reason for optimism. “At least the picture in South Asia has some glimmers of hope,” he says.
On the surface, this spread of meaningful democracy appears to be extending beyond South Asia. After six decades in power, the right-wing United Malays National Organization was booted out of power in May this year. But Mahathir Mohamad, the 92-year-old former prime minister who led the country to victory and now heads the nation again, faces criticism for his own autocratic tendencies and has, in the past, made anti-Semitic remarks. His victory “does not necessarily augur well for other democracies in the region,” says Arch Puddington, distinguished fellow for democracy studies at Freedom House.
But even back in South Asia, democracy faces serious challenges. To Diamond, for example, Bangladesh “is not a democracy right now.” The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party didn’t contest the last parliamentary elections in 2013 as a mark of protest against alleged electoral irregularities in the lead-up, so incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina faced no meaningful resistance to her return to power. “[Hasina] has seriously diminished democracy,” says Diamond. Bangladesh will hold its national elections in December.
Similarly, in Pakistan, Khan is widely believed to have won with the tacit support of the country’s all-powerful military that “runs broad swaths of government policy in Pakistan,” says Diamond. “Khan is compromised in his connections to the military.” In Sri Lanka, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had lost the country’s 2015 elections, last week engineered his return as prime minister after the coalition that was ruling fell apart three years into the government’s tenure.
Even in India, critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have accused him of illiberal tendencies. Some have even said the country is in a state of “undeclared emergency.” The EIU’s Democracy Index has classified India among “flawed democracies.” The country goes to elections next spring in what will serve as a referendum on Modi.
Still, the electoral defeats of regime after regime in South Asia — in some cases, like the Maldives, against all odds — point to new theaters where democracy is waging a battle against authoritarianism that has traditionally favored parties in power. “I do think that there is a competition between democracies and dictatorships around the world,” says Jonathan Ward, founder of the Atlas Organization, a Washington think tank, and an analyst of Asia and the Indian Ocean region.
That tussle is playing out sharply in countries big and small, from Malaysia to the Maldives. In Malaysia, communities — from leftists to Hindus, Buddhists and those from smaller islands — that have for decades found little space in the country’s history textbooks are now demanding that the nation rewrite them. Their demands are finding support from the new government — but they’re also facing a backlash from entrenched interests. Close to Malaysia, Timor-Leste, one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia, conducted fair elections that led to a smooth transfer of power in May this year. Freedom House described the elections as “a bright spot for the region.” And in the Maldives, Yameen challenged the election results before the Supreme Court, but the court struck down his petition.
Other signs point more clearly to deepening democratic roots in many of these countries. Take voter turnouts, which increased for women in Pakistan (where they’re a traditionally disadvantaged community) and across Bhutan’s population this year. For many of these countries, democracy is recent, and voters appear keen to make up for lost time.
The voting percentage in the Maldives has consistently hovered close to 90 percent since the country finally turned to democracy in 2008, after four decades of dictatorship. And behind its calm Buddhism, Bhutan’s impatience is hard to ignore: In three national elections since its monarchy embraced democracy in 2008, it has returned a different party to power each time. Such enthusiasm for voting cannot easily be rolled back.