Democracy in South Asia: A long road ahead

When we say the word” Democracy”, we intend towards liberal democracy which reflects certain characteristics such as; rule of law, transparent electoral process, free and fair judicial process, independent media and open political and civic space. The South Asian region is characterized by various number of the diverse nation-states with strong authoritarian regimes i.e. China and North Korea situated alongside with many of their neighboring countries with democratic form of Government.

In this part of the world, the regimes range from soft to more authoritarian form with the slight tinge of western democratic values. China has the political system based on the extreme authoritarian values and on the other hand its market economy is standing on the neo liberal capitalism and that eventually caused its rise as the economic giant in the past three decades. The growing geopolitical competition in the continent, between USA and china, is somehow affecting and influencing the governance trends particularly in south east Asian region. According to many close observers of the region, the democracy has been declining for several years. The occurrence of extra judicial killings and drug war under Rodrigo Duterte, the suppression of opposition and media by Hun Sen in Cambodia, military Coup in Thailand in 2014, 800,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh to escape from the ethnic cleansing are all the reflection of the declining democratic values.

In the recent years, the conservative regimes having conservative ideas have emerged in the countries sch as Japan, China, Myanmar and India. The election of Shinzo Abe, Nareendra Modi, Aung San suki shows the emergence of populist leaders across the political spectrum of their respective countries. There is the general perception that leaders with such popular mandate are somehow inclined towards the subversion of democratic values sometimes at the expense of the human rights. The recent events against minorities in India and Myanmar are the reflective of that approach.

One of the most significant features that defines the subtleties of democracy in the region is the dynamic rise of the Chinese power and the influence that it is exerting throughout the Southeast Asian region. And in response to that United States of America under Donald Trump has launched the new Free and Open Indo Pacific (FOIP) strategy that explicitly challenges the diluting influence of the China. And this prevalent Sino-Chinese competition of hegemony in the region is generating the impact on the ongoing political trends in the individual states of southeast Asia. Because now in the shape of China they have a string economic giant offering them a governance model that is ideal for the leaders who want to attain economic prosperity without limitation and restriction on their power. China is propagating its foreign policy and strategic interests by increasing its engagement with the various domestic actors. The provision of the diplomatic cover to the Burmese Government in return for the belt and road projects and cordial relationship with Cambodia to gain its support for the South China Sea position is the part of the Chinese strategy that is based on creating a sphere of influence in the southeast Asian region even by ensuring the survival of the authoritarian regimes that are key economic and strategic partners.

On the other hand, USA has somehow demoted its post-cold war pro democratic posture that was the defining feature of the USA’s policy of global domination. Owing to this foreign policy tactic of the Trump administration now USA is no longer the ideal of democracy in the Asia or any part of the world.

Irrespective of these trends, the region also witnessed some very brave and clear hope for the democracy in 2018 when in Malaysia the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) lost power for the first time since 1957 the electoral process bought Dr Mahathir Muhammad back into the power.

Looking at the political dynamics of the Indonesia it can be said that the despite the rising level of intolerance in the country it remains one of the consolidated democracies of the region. And along with that despite very turbulent civil and military equation in Pakistan and very vivid history of suppressed civilian supremacy, Pakistan is also going through its third consecutive democratic tenure.

So, it is evident that in the past decade the net democratic progress has increased significantly in the region. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index in 2017 showed that the net democratic progress is surpassing all other regions around the globe. Especially the democratic movement in Nepal that swept the country and the transition of the absolute monarchy into the constitutional monarchy followed by the country’s first election in 2008.

But despite of this fact that there was some visible surge in the democratic trends in the region as compared to the other parts of the world, the current environment of the region is clouded by the bilateral power pull between USA and China where the latter is impressing many southeast Asian countries to copy the Chinese model of authoritarianism and  especially the state controlled-media model that is being copied in the other states of the region e.g. Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. This increasing pattern is undermining the true essence of the democracy where the freedom of thought and the expression is given the utmost importance. With plenty of varying facts about the nature of democracy of this region makes it very challenging to predict something about the future prospects of democracy here but one thing is quite clear that if this region wants to attain the  political and geographical stability, the states should be adaptive of the change that is occurring in the power dynamics in the context of the Sino-American competition of power in the region.

The agenda of the “for the people and by the people” should gain momentum instead of the desire by the populist southeast Asian regimes to attain ultimate economic prosperity at the expense of democratic values and norms. It is quite evident that this part of the world is emerging as the center of the political and economic change accompanied by vastly diverse and culturally rich societies that have been home to various civilizations. Some are the completely democratic societies while other are going through the phase of transition that means that for them there is the long road ahead for the democracy and rule of law.

Hence, it can be said that the case of ‘a glass half full or half empty ‘can be applied perfectly here.But one thing should be for sure that democracy should not be taken for granted by the states ever as it is the credible and authentic mean which paves the way for the idea of the welfare state where each citizen is able to get his/her rights comfortably. The innovative, concrete and remedial steps are required by the policymakers and citizens of the South Asia to ensure the safety of the democracy in the region.

Ajwa Hijazi
Ajwa Hijazi
I am student of Mphil peace and conflict studies in NDU Islamabad striving to learn more every day.