December 23, 2007

South Asia: Dangerous democracy deficit

The failure of parliamentary democracy and the radicalization of politics in several states in South Asia throws into sharp relief the danger posed by the rapid decay of political institutions.

Editor's Note: This is the fifth in ISN Security Watch's 2008 Prognosis series. Please find a link to the entire series at the bottom of this article.
Prognosis by Harsh V Pant for ISN Security Watch (21/12/07)

The democracy index in South Asia has fallen dramatically in the past year despite the fact that the region is home to the world's largest democracy. South Asia today is confronted with a number of weak states with decaying democratic institutions – a situation that has placed the entire region in turmoil.

It finds itself gripped by political violence with several states fighting political instability in one form or another. Apart from India, where democracy continues to thrive, other South Asian states are struggling to make their political institutions work. There is a pressing need in the region for a stable and democratic political order, both of which are in serious jeopardy.

Pakistan: Political confusion reigns

Pakistan has been characterized by political turmoil this past year as opposition to President-General Pervez Musharraf's rule gathered momentum and radical Islamist forces strengthened their control across large parts of the country.

Musharraf won another term as president with 98 percent support in October's legislative poll. The election took place even as he continued to fight for political survival, sacking Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and subsequently dismissing the entire Supreme Court bench as it prepared to overturn his election.

Musharraf has since given up the post of army chief, but political instability continues to haunt the nation with major parties unable to reach a consensus as to whether to participate in January 2008 legislative elections. While the two main groups - Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan's People's Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League - have now decided to participate in the elections, there remain sharp divisions as to how to challenge Musharraf.

Many smaller parties have decided to boycott the elections. The two main political parties fear that if they do not participate, even under unfair conditions, Musharraf will win a government and parliament of his choosing.

It was a less-than warm welcome for Bhutto as she narrowly survived twin bomb explosions that shattered her convoy in Karachi on her return to the country in October.

The underlying weakness of Pakistani political institutions was evident in the fact that Bhutto's return, while touted as a victory for democracy, was facilitated by a questionable deal brokered with Musharraf. The president-general received another term in office, which defied democratic principles as public disenchantment with him was at an all-time high. In exchange, corruption charges against Bhutto and her associates were dropped. This does not inspire much confidence in the ability of major political figures in Pakistan to adhere to the principle of the rule of law, the foundation of modern democracy. Such a bargain is surely not the best way to initiate a new age of parliamentary democracy in Pakistan.

The other discredited former premier, Sharif, also returned and, with Bhutto, ostensibly is trying to revive the democratic project in Pakistan.

For the West, and the US in particular, democracy in Pakistan can be a complicated issue.

To have political currency in Pakistan, it is essential for leaders to demonstrate their independence from Washington. There is a danger that anti-Americanism will be further inflamed once democratic forces come into full play - a trend exacerbated by the fact that mainstream political parties have been discredited and marginalized in the last few years as Islamist forces have gained momentum.

Pakistan is in a state of flux, and the return of Bhutto and Sharif has further aggravated the fragile socio-political dynamic. Bhutto's dealings with Musharraf have dented her reputation with the liberals and moderates in the country.

In a way, the big winner in the last few days has been the military and Musharraf himself. Just a few months back, Musharraf seemed to be losing his grip on power and the military's popularity was at an all-time low. Now, Musharraf seems set for another five-year presidential term and political parties, including Bhutto's, are appearing self-serving. This does not bode well for the future of the country's parliamentary democracy.

Meanwhile, militants continue to gain ground with the increasing Talibanization of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. There is no hope for an Indo-Pakistani peace process unless India is sure that Musharraf is in control in Islamabad. With his credibility at an all-time low, other political forces will be reluctant to accept any deal that he might broker with India.

Bangladesh: Another Pakistan in the making?

To the east, Bangladesh - widely considered a relatively stable democracy in the Islamic world until a few years back - is currently under emergency rule and is preparing for elections, possibly in October 2008.

However, public discontent with the rule of the military-backed caretaker government will simmer for another year and could upset the process. In the meantime, the caretaker government's questionable reforms are weakening the country's already fragile democratic foundation and unwittingly paving the way for radical Islamists to play a major role in politics.

National elections scheduled for January 2007 were postponed indefinitely and a state of emergency was declared by President Iajuddin Ahmed with the backing of the armed forces. Despite warnings from the international community that any move toward military rule would have adverse consequences for Bangladesh, the army-backed administration has tightened its grip on the country. It has declared its ambition to uproot corruption and violence in electoral politics as well as to effectively tackle Islamist militancy. This has led to the arrest of several high-ranking politicians, including two former prime ministers, on graft charges and the execution of six high-profile Islamist militants.

Though ordinary Bangladeshis initially welcomed the installation of the military-backed caretaker government, there is now growing resentment at its failure to better manage the economy and to re-establish democratic governance.

There is also a danger that as the caretaker government weakens the mainstream political parties, the radical Islamist organizations could gain greater salience. Jamait-e-Islami, for example, is emerging as a potent political force in Bangladesh's polity, where other mainstream political parties are being discredited. There is a danger of Bangladesh becoming another Pakistan where the military took office promising a fight against corruption and has gone on to rule the country on an almost permanent basis.

This summer saw students challenge the might of the government, which responded by imposing an indefinite curfew and closing down all educational institutions. This was the most serious threat to army rule. Though this threat subsided after a few weeks, it revealed the tensions that continue to simmer below the surface.

By weakening the main institutions that have sustained the remnants of democracy in Bangladesh, the present government is further weakening prospects for its restoration. With the nation's democratic institutions in a shambles, there is nothing to replace the military-backed regime, rendering the religious organizations the main actors.

While military rule might appear to be the right solution for Bangladesh, in the long-term it cannot resolve the problems of weak political institutions and rising Islamic radicalism and will only hinder Bangladesh's evolution into a stable secular democracy.

Sri Lanka: Tigers up the ante

Sri Lanka has plunged back into civil war with the collapse of the ceasefire between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government. The Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for an independent homeland for minority ethnic Tamils who suffered decades of discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese majority.

The country's democratic system is under attack from the Tamil Tigers who have demonstrated their growing military prowess by repeatedly using air strikes against Sri Lankan military bases and other high-value economic targets.

The peace process is in a shambles and the two sides are preparing for a lengthy conflict following the unraveling of a 2002 Norwegian-brokered ceasefire agreement. The LTTE exploited the deal to expand its offensive air capabilities. The movement had little intention of honoring its commitments under the pact, making it even more difficult for the Sri Lankan government to trust the Tamil Tigers in the future.

The LTTE demonstrated its aerial capabilities for the first time in early 2007 using light aircraft to carry out raids on two key Sri Lankan air force bases and two oil and gas storage facilities. The Tigers' sovereignty demands will only grow louder following this demonstration of their ability to strike key elements of the Sri Lankan military and economic infrastructure.

The government also remains more focused on the military approach in dealing with the Tamils, while a political initiative that offers a substantial measure of devolution to the Tamil region and underlines the genuine equality of all citizens is long overdue.

Fighting has now escalated as the government of President Mahindra Rajapakse is intent on taking the battle into the stronghold of the Tigers, the Tamil-dominated areas in the north, so as to weaken the LTTE militarily and force it back to the negotiating table.

Nepal: Maoists derail the peace process

Nepal is still struggling to come to terms with its new political institutions. Things have yet to settle down more than a year after the king was forced to give up emergency powers and restore the elected parliament.

The fighting between the Maoists and the Nepalese government lasted for a decade and cost an estimated 13,000 lives, ending with a peace accord in 2006. The Maoists joined the government after the signing of the peace deal only to leave it in September 2007, expressing their lack of faith in the leadership of Prime Minister GP Koirala. This decision raised significant questions regarding the future of the peace process, which is vital for Nepal's future.

With elections to the constituent assembly, initially scheduled for November 2007, now postponed, the entire political process is fast losing credibility in the eyes of the people and the international community.

The Maoists themselves remain divided between those who want to join the democratic mainstream and those who want to carry on the "struggle" until all their demands are met. Maoists have not laid down their arms entirely and have not allowed the UN to verify their combatants. The delay in holding elections for the constituent assembly has put a spanner in the peace process.

Burma: Junta under pressure

Political instability returned to Burma in October when an alliance of Buddhist monks and pro-democracy activists mounted a challenge against the rule of the military junta.

The protests were reminiscent of the mass pro-democracy uprising of 1988, suppressed by the regime at the cost of thousands of lives. When the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi swept the polls in 1988, the Burmese junta annulled the democratic exercise. Since then Suu Kyi has been in detention or under house arrest.

In 2007, the monks took to the streets after the Burmese government doubled the price of fuel. It is the dire economic situation in Burma that has given the pro-democracy movement some traction. The demonstrations revealed deep discontent and anger over the junta's economic mismanagement.

Myanmar's junta has survived isolation by the West by cozying up to its neighbors, notably China. But the latest battle of nerves between the nation's two most powerful institutions, the military and the Buddhist monks, has made it clear that the old order in Burma is no longer sustainable.

Though the junta has lost its last shred of credibility as the purported defender of national unity and traditional values, it has no intention of relinquishing its hold on power and is hoping that global attention will soon shift from Burma and that pressure on it will ease.

Bhutan: Towards democracy, slowly but steadily

The only good news seems to be emerging from Bhutan, where the king abdicated in 2006 - perhaps learning a lesson from the fate of the monarchy in Nepal - and has decided to hold parliamentary elections in 2008.

Bhutan is gradually opening up to the world, a process that started almost a decade ago when the king introduced non-party elections for parliament. While his ultimate ambition is to evolve a multiparty democratic institutional framework, it will take some time for the people of Bhutan, the majority of who continue to think that their king is the repository of all knowledge, to get used to the excitement of democracy.

Moreover, the state of neighboring democracies that have been churning out one corrupt politician after another over the last several decades will not inspire confidence regarding the future trajectory of their nation.

So while the king might be right in hoping that a move toward democracy is perhaps the best way to forestall any rebellious tendencies, it will take more than a forced vote to turn this hermit kingdom into a parliamentary democracy.

The apparent failure of parliamentary democracy and the radicalization of politics in several states in South Asia throws into sharp relief the danger posed by the rapid decay of political institutions in many emerging democracies.

The political ferment in South Asia continues to provide fertile ground for all kinds of extremist ideologies, be they radical Islam, Hindu nationalism, Tamil separatism or Maoism.

The inability of political institutions to bear the weight of rising expectations in a region that contains more than one-sixth of humanity, and is situated at the junction of three important sub-regions of the Asian continent, should no longer be ignored as it can have far-reaching consequences for the world as a whole.

It is for the international community to leverage its influence in South Asia more effectively and to prevent the region from becoming another Middle East - a combustible mix of tyranny, stagnation and extremism.

Harsh V Pant is a lecturer at King's College London. His research interests include WMD proliferation, US foreign policy and Asia-Pacific security issues. The views expressed are his own.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

ISN Security Watch 2008 Prognosis

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