Asia’s Democratic Dark Spots

Must read

New Delhi – Democracy in Asia lately has proved to be hardier than many might have expected, with free and fair elections enabling the large and divided societies of India and Indonesia to manage important political transitions. But some Asian democracies – notably, Thailand and Pakistan – seem to be losing their way.

Indians have plenty of experience with changing their government through the ballot box, and this year’s election – the country’s 16th since independence in 1947 – was no different. In the world’s largest exercise of democratic franchise, Indian voters rejected the United Progressive Alliance, which had served two terms, in favor of the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi.

The second-largest such exercise followed in Indonesia. In the country’s third presidential election, voters – familiar with both strong-arm military rule and weak-willed civilian governance – chose the populist mayor Joko Widodo over the former general Prabowo Subianto.

Even war-ravaged Afghanistan held presidential elections to guide its first democratic transfer of power. Though the apparent loser Abdullah Abdullah is vehemently challenging the results, which favor Ashraf Ghani, the dispute has not turned violent; indeed, both parties are participating in US-mediated talks about the possibility of establishing a national-unity government. It is reassuring that, in a land ravaged by civil war and terrorism, neither of the contestants is reaching for his gun.

These countries finally seem to recognize, to varying degrees, that the way that elections are conducted matters as much as the outcome. An election expresses the hopes, promises, commitments, and compromises that underpin the sacred compact between the government and the governed. Accepting the results is a vital part of democracy. You fight to win, but you accept your loss with grace.

Unfortunately, this trend is not consistent across Asia. Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej effectively signed Thai-democracy’s death certificate by approving a new interim constitution – by some counts the country’s 18th since 1932 – that grants absolute power to the National Council for Peace and Order, the military junta led by army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha. Prayuth can now “prevent, suspend, or suppress any actions that will destroy the peace and order, the national security and monarchy, the country’s economy or the country’s governance.”

Even if elections are held next year, as the ruling junta has promised, it is unlikely that they will be free or fair. Thailand – which has experienced more than a dozen military coups in the last 82 years – now has a constitution that is effectively a charter for indefinite military rule.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has been paralyzed by a protracted standoff between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s elected government and its critics. The charismatic former cricket star Imran Khan, whose Movement for Justice party came in third in May’s general election, and the Canada-based religious leader Tahirul Qadri are leading mass demonstrations that have brought Islamabad to a standstill – a situation that Khan and Qadri have pledged to sustain until Sharif resigns.

A glimmer of hope lies in the response of the main opposition Pakistan People’s Party, whose government Sharif supplanted. Instead of joining the protests, the PPP has backed Sharif’s refusal to allow extra-constitutional pressure to force him to resign.

But in Pakistan, as in Thailand, the army’s shadow looms large. Indeed, Pakistan’s army has ruled the country directly for half of its existence, and indirectly the rest of the time. So far, however, the army has yet to intervene directly in the current unrest, suggesting that significant elements of the top military brass have condoned the agitation.

In fact, there is a fundamental difference between the military’s current relationship with democracy in the two countries – one that bodes well for Pakistan. In Thailand, the elites, including the military, opposed consecutive democratically elected governments, because voters had inconveniently chosen populist politicians – notably, Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck – to lead them. After several unsuccessful attempts to engineer different political outcomes by manipulating the democratic process, these powerful groups decided that it would be easier to eliminate the pretense of democratic elections altogether.

In Pakistan, by contrast, the problem began only when elected civilian governments pushed back against the supreme power of the armed forces. Given its pervasive control over Pakistan’s key political, economic, and intelligence institutions, the military has plenty of tools at its disposal to constrain – overtly or otherwise – elected governments’ ability to act against its interests.

It is probably no coincidence that, when an increasingly restive Sharif appeared to be testing the limits of the military’s authority, protests erupted. If he shows the military that he understands who is boss, and that he will adhere strictly to whatever red lines are drawn for him, the protesters will not be allowed to overthrow him; the army will quickly drive them from the streets.

It is thus too early to mourn the death of Pakistan’s democracy, which will likely continue as a kind of “guided democracy” for some time to come. But, in order to preserve and strengthen it, all of Pakistan’s political parties will have to learn to conduct free, fair, rules-based elections – and abide by their outcome.

That is precisely what Pakistan now needs from Khan, whose party has only 35 seats in the National Assembly, fewer than the PPP’s 45 and far fewer than the 166 held by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League. Surely a cricketer would understand that, with those scores, he cannot be declared Man of the Match. Unfortunately, Khan appears to expect the khaki-clad umpires to swing the game for him.

Democracy in Asia has made impressive gains in recent years. A generation ago, half of Asia’s governments had seized power by force; today, a return to military rule seems inconceivable in South Korea and the Philippines, and unlikely in Bangladesh. Even Myanmar, for all of its problems, has broken definitively with praetorianism. But it will take a lot more progress in Thailand and Pakistan before the continent will truly have turned the democratic corner.

Shashi Tharoor
+ posts

Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary general and former Indian Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs, is currently a Member of Parliament for the Indian National Congress.

More articles

Latest article