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.
Ways to Overcome Afghanistan Crisis in Post-Republic Collapse
On August 15, 2021, the Afghan Republic government collapsed and the Taliban took over the Afghan capital city of Kabul. The last American military flight that airlifted the last American soldier, Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division, left Kabul on 30th August 2021 at 11.59 pm Kabul time that ended America’s longest nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan.
Consequently, the abrupt withdrawal created a political vacuum that resulted in a humanitarian and political crisis with far-reaching consequences. During the last two decades, there have been several areas of improvement, notably, in education, civilian government institutions, the media, the economy, civil society, healthcare sectors, and regional connectivity.
Most importantly, the literacy rate significantly improved. The adult total literacy rate (aged 15 and older) was estimated at 43% (2018) which includes 55.5% male, 29.8% female, and 13.3% elderly (65 years old and above). Youth total literacy rate (aged 15-24) is estimated at 65.4% (2018); that contains male 74.1%, and female 56.3%. Now, under the current circumstances, there is a risk of reversing the hard-earned gains of the last two decades. To preserve the hard-earned gains of the last two decades and prevent the impending socio-economic and political-security negative spillover effects, the United States of America, the United Nations, the European Union, China, Russia, and neighboring Central Asian republics should use preventive diplomacy and find a constructive solution to the crisis in Afghanistan.
Current challenges and problems
Women and girlsmake up 49 percent of the estimated 40 million Afghan population who are excluded from public life, including a ban on attending high schools and universities, as well as restrictions on access to work. Studies suggest Afghanistan is one of the worst repressive countries for women and girls, particularly due to the Taliban’s strict restrictions. Direct international development assistance, which accounted for 75 percent of public expenditures, has been suspended after the Afghan Republic government collapsed. 28.3 million people, two-thirds of the Afghan population, are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance in 2023, and 17 million people are at risk of acute hunger.
Insurgent groups are resurging in Afghanistan including the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Khorasan (ISIS-K), a regional affiliate of ISIS. According to a UN Security Council assessment, ISIS-K gained “ strength and visibility” in Afghanistan after the Taliban assumed control of the country and could create concerns beyond Afghanistan.
During a recent hearing in the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, the Army Gen. Michael Kurilla, who leads U.S. Central Command warned that the terrorist group will be able to carry out attacks beyond Afghanistan against American and European interests within six months “with little to no warning.” As a failing state, Afghanistan could turn into an unwitting host to terrorist groups, and the Taliban’s reluctance to sever ties with Al-Qaeda could further exacerbate security in the region and beyond.
Due to the absence of conflicts, there has been an overall security improvement that contributes to the reduction of the number of casualties since August 2021. However, soaring inflation, economic instability, widespread human rights violations, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, ban on women and girl education from secondary and tertiary education, restrictions on working in international NGOs, and saying “female NGO staff had broken dress codes by not wearing hijabs”, and international sanctions further exacerbated the livelihood.
Quality education is a fundamental human right that should be accessible to all Afghan citizens, regardless of gender. Freedom of expression and thought is a human right that should not be criminalized or subject to extrajudicial measures. Furthermore, reports of revenge killings could further create concerns among former government officials in the country. Afghans are seeking risky ways to escape from the country, with 1.6 million new arrivals to neighbouring countries, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan following the Taliban takeover.
What can regional and extra-regional actors do?
The Bonn agreement, which took place under the auspices of the United Nations among Afghan political elites in 2001 and led to the establishment of a new western-supported government in Afghanistan. The newly established government received immense political and financial support from the EU, U.S., and other countries toward the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the country. Despite facing numerous challenges, the support helped to steer the country on the path to progress.
Currently, the Taliban, a religious group, rules Afghanistan without internal legitimacy through elections or external recognition from any country. Their exclusionary approach may worsen the security and political situation in the country. They have shown no willingness to hold elections, and do not plan to do so since they believe their legitimacy comes from religious interpretations. This political stalemate may drive the country to the brink of another conflict and crisis.
Before the situation worsens, the U.S., UN, EU, Russia, China, and Central Asia through preventive diplomacy can contain the delicate situation from implosion. In terms of financial aid for Afghanistan, the U.S. is the largest donor. The aid includes over $2 billion for humanitarian and development assistance, and $2.7 billion allocated for FY 2022 to the Department of Defense for transportation and sustenance of Afghan evacuees. Additionally, the U.S. made available the transfer of $3.5 billion in Afghan central bank assets to the Afghan Fund, a Swiss-based trust fund.
The EU allocated €222 million and €174 million for humanitarian support through humanitarian organizations operating in the country and the surrounding region for the years 2021 and 2022, respectively.
Humanitarian support by U.S., EU, and other states may help temporarily ease the humanitarian crises. However, an impending socio-economic and politico-security crisis would spill over beyond Afghanistan and may have implications for the region and beyond. To overcome an impending socio-economic and political-security implications stemming from Afghanistan from escalating, the countries in the region and beyond, particularly, the U.S., China, Russia, and the EU must step up their diplomatic, political, and economic leverage.
The U.S. and the EU possess the necessary means and capacity to intervene and mitigate the potential crisis from exacerbating. Particularly, the EU has diplomatic presence and special envoys in Afghanistan and neighbouring states, thereby enabling them to exert their influence and leverage coupled with political pressure upon the Taliban to initiate a political settlement dialogue encompassing all facets of the Afghan political landscape. The EU and Central Asia Special Representatives and Special Envoys for Afghanistan’s latest meetings in Brussels are effective initiatives but require a tangible push to change the behavior of the Taliban’s leadership.
The U.S. EU, and China have the capacity to overcome the current humanitarian crisis by providing humanitarian assistance through aid organizations operating in Afghanistan and the region and encouraging other countries to step in to address the crises. Additionally, U.S. EU, and China can encourage other countries in the region to exert their influence on the Taliban to show willingness, initially through a traditional Loya Jirga, which could consequently pave the way for more representative government, elections, meaningful representation of women in all socio-political sectors, and respect for human rights.
Gulf countries, especially Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates could play an influential role by leveraging their politico-religious influence. Moreover, other regional countries especially in neighbourhood, namely: Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, which often express concerns about current and impending spillover effects. These countries could be encouraged to play a constructive role.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has Programme Offices in Central Asia and Field Missions in the region. These offices could help address certain spillover effects of Afghanistan, particularly, drug trafficking and human rights abuses.
To sum up, Afghanistan has experienced tumultuous political upheavals over the past four decades, culminating in the current political impasse that reflects the recurrence of political errors. The U.S., the EU, China, and other actors in the region should closely monitor the rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan to prevent escalation.
To consolidate political stability and ensure comprehensive representation across all strata of society, establishing a broad-based and inclusive government is imperative. An inclusive government has the potential to protect human rights, guarantee meaningful representation for women and ethnic and religious minorities, and address the menace of terrorism and extremism. It can also ensure access to education for all, which could help overcome the protracted crisis that has encompassed Afghanistan.
A Coercive Democracy?
Imagine the opposition leader of a major democracy being bundled off to jail for supposedly defaming the surname of the ruling party’s leader but it is exactly what has happened in India. Rahul Gandhi has been given a two-year sentence and has 30 days to appeal. The case was originally brought by a plaintiff named Purnesh Modi in 2019; he is a member of the Gujarat Legislative Assembly and a BJP stalwart.
It is certainly odd that the incident in question occurred not in the recent past but in 2019. Why 2023 for the hearing is then the obvious question until one is informed that Indian elections are to be held in 2024 and the main opposition leader behind bars will certainly make the job of the ruling BJP much easier. It all sounds very much like someone dusted off the files and wondered what could be done with the whole affair.
In his speech, Gandhi apparently pointed out recent notable fraud cases in India — the fugitive Indian diamond tycoon Nirav Modi, the Indian Premier (cricket) League chief Lalit Modi and added the name Narendra Modi. He then used the words which became the basis of the trial: “Why do all thieves have Modi as their surname?” Thus the complainant could say he had “defamed the entire Modi community.” To make matters worse, Modi is not an uncommon name in Gujarat.
There is more than a grain of truth in Gandhi’s charge. For example, there is Modi’s friend and supporter Gautam Shantilal Adani. He heads one of the top three industrial conglomerates in India, the Adani Group, with personal wealth in excess of $30 billion.
Hindenburg Research is a group which focuses on activist short selling. They noticed that Adani was using an auditing firm with 11 employees, four of whom were partners in the firm, as auditors for an enterprise worth $100 billion. Given the size, most reputable auditors would virtually have an office there to monitor activity.
Hindenburg’s scathing review of Adani enterprises showed opportunities for a huge profit or the short side. Following a 2-year investigation, they published a well researched 32-page report, and their clients certainly profited. The $100 billion value is down to $45 billion and for the individual investor the stock is down since January from about 4 to 2 thousand rupees.
To return to Rahul Gandhi: There was a reason for his maximum two-year sentence. It turns out that if a parliamentary member is sentenced to two years or more in jail, he has to vacate his seat in the legislative assembly. His comments to the press recalled his great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru’s (India’s first prime minister) time in British jails and likening himself as a similar martyr to tyranny.
One has to wonder if Rahul is the brightest bulb in the Nehru pantheon when he wants to relinquish a platform that easily. Fewer opposition critics would suit Modi fine.
There may, however, be a bright side though it remains to be seen. The fractured opposition (including Rahul Gandhi’s Congress Party) having observed what has been done to him have an incentive to come together and form a united front against the BJP. How successful they will be remains to be seen. Just that it can’t be any worse than it is now.
Will the “Rule of Law” in Our Country Always be an Unreliable Myth?
Modern democratic societies place a strong emphasis on the “rule of law.” It implies that the rule of law must be upheld by all parties, including the government, and that justice will be served fairly. Recent occurrences, though, have cast doubt on the validity of this principle. The absence of consistency in its application is the first factor that leads some people to doubt the reliability of the rule of law. However, because laws are not always applied equally to all parties, justice is not always upheld. Because of their position, resources, or connections, some people might be given preference. People may lose faith in the legal system as a result of this inconsistency and begin to doubt the reliability of the rule of law.
Undoubtedly, every democratic society must adhere to the rule of law. It is the notion that everyone is treated equally by the law and that the law ought to be applied to all people equally and impartially. The rule of law, regrettably, is an unattainable myth in many nations, including Pakistan. Human rights abuses, political unrest, and corruption have plagued Pakistan for a very long time. The legal structure of the nation is complicated, involving a judiciary that is frequently swayed by political pressure and multiple sources of law. Although Pakistan’s constitution upholds the rule of law, the legal system there frequently acts arbitrarily and inconsistently.
Moreover, corruption is one of the main causes of the mythical impossibility of the rule of law in Pakistan. At every level of the government and society, from the police to the judiciary, corruption is rife. Public trust in the legal system can be damaged by corruption, which also threatens its integrity. Officials weaken the rule when they abuse their position for selfish gain or to advance their interests. Bribery, nepotism, and theft are just a few examples of the various ways corruption manifests. Therefore, this means that the wealthy and powerful can frequently sway the legal system to their benefit, while those who are poor and marginalized are denied access to justice. This has made it challenging for common people to access justice because they might not have the money to bribe officials or pay for pricey attorneys. Many Pakistanis lack faith in the legal system as a result of its inability to provide justice.
There have been initiatives to combat corruption and reform the legal system in recent years. Some of the actions taken to combat corruption include the establishment of national accountability bureaus and the creation of specialized anti-corruption courts. Additionally, by offering legal aid to underprivileged and marginalized communities, the government has improved access to justice. Similarly, the influence of traditional and religious customs is another factor contributing to Pakistan’s lack of a functional legal system. Particularly when it comes to issues like gender equality and human rights, these traditions frequently run counter to the principles of the rule of law. For instance, Pakistani laws favor men and a frequently biased judiciary subjects women to discrimination in the legal system.
Contrarily, if the government disobeys court orders, holds people without charge or trial, or commits extrajudicial killings, it sends a message that the law does not apply equally to everyone. A culture of impunity can be established when the government steps in to decide who is right and wrong. However, in numerous instances states respect and uphold this law. For instance, Scandinavian countries like Norway, Denmark, and Finland consistently rank among the best in the world for upholding the rule of law. These countries are characterized by strong legal frameworks, independent courts, and low levels of corruption. This demonstrates that it is not an impossibly high ideal but rather a goal that is attainable with the right institutions and culture.
Last but not least, this law is necessary for upholding individual rights and promoting social stability. Without it, there is a possibility of the use of power arbitrarily, which can result in unrest and instability. It ensures that everyone is subject to the same laws and that justice is done fairly. It is a foundational element of democratic societies, and its preservation is necessary to ensure the efficient operation of society. Modern legal systems are predicated on the idea that everyone, regardless of social standing or position, is subject to the law and that the law is applied fairly and consistently. This means that everyone must abide by the same laws and legal processes to resolve legal disputes and that no one is above the law. In a society where the rule of law is upheld, there is a fair and predictable legal framework that guarantees that individual rights are protected and disputes are settled through the legal system rather than through force or personal influence.
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