By Dr. Farah Naz , Assistant Professor at NUST | February 2024

In terms of elections, voting, and electoral exercises, 2024 has been an extremely busy year worldwide. In South Asia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and the Maldives are heading to polls this year. In the race to elect their leaders, Bangladesh took the lead in the region to hold national parliamentary elections on January 7. According to emerging results, the incumbent political party, the Awami League (AL), has won by a landslide, claiming about 75% of the country’s parliamentary seats. This continues to make the AL leader Sheikh Hasina Wajed Bangladesh’s longest-serving prime minister—having won five times, four of which have been consecutive victories and the longest-serving female head of a country in the world. But what is the issue with the current elections in Bangladesh? Why are people upset with the election outcome? Were the general elections not free, fair, and transparent?

Bangladesh is located east of India and home to more than 170 million people. The election’s outcome has its background. Months of growing tension across Bangladesh saw political protests turn violent, leading to the arrest of thousands of political opposition members and leaving behind questions about what is happening to the democratic elections in Bangladesh. The main opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), called Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the AL to step down in favour of a caretaker government overseeing the election. The government rejected this request, and the opposition ultimately boycotted the elections.

Days before elections, Bangladesh’s main opposition party started a 48-hour general strike, calling on people to boycott the polls because of its perceived unfairness under the supervision of the incumbent Prime Minister, who desperately sought to return to power for the fourth term on the trot. The main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by former premier Khaleda Zia, vowed to disrupt the election through a strike and boycott. According to the Associated Press, the election turnout was around 40%. Hence, it becomes evident that the polls were not “free or fair,” and the outcome does not represent the majority population.

Here, the question comes to mind: Is Bangladesh’s latest election part of a larger trend of democratic regression in South Asia and Southeast Asia? Is there any realization that political instability in all these countries will directly affect peace, prosperity, and stability in the region and beyond?

Since the late 2000s, Southeast Asia’s democratization has stalled, and in some of the region’s most economically and strategically important nations, democracy has gone into reverse order. Over the past ten years, Thailand has undergone a rapid and severe regression from democracy and is now ruled by a junta. Thai forces have filed dubious legal cases against Pita Limjaroenrat, the progressive leader of the Move Forward Party (MFP), who is mandated to become the country’s next prime minister, to keep him from taking his parliamentary seat. This is a time-worn tactic in Bangkok that Thailand’s compliant judiciary will likely sustain. In the meantime, they have already successfully sidelined the MFP from being part of any government formed, even though it won the most seats in the lower house elections.

In Cambodia, Hun Sen announced that he was handing power to his son Hun Manet- the decision lacked popular support. Myanmar’s junta, which crushed the country’s weak and troubled democracy with a February 2021 coup, now faces a serious threat to its existence from emboldened resistance forces that control large portions of the country.

Even three stronger and bigger democracies in the Southeast region, namely the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia, are also backsliding. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who served as the 16th president of the Philippines from 2016 to 2022, badly undermined democracy, and his successor, President Ferdinand Marcos, has surprised observers—especially given his pedigree—by moderating some of Duterte’s worst excesses in economic and foreign policy. It remains to be seen if he will follow through to repair all the damage to the country’s human rights landscape.

In Indonesia, in addition to faltering on promised reforms and allowing regressive criminal laws to be passed, Jokowi, the president of Indonesia, has expanded the powers and influence of the armed forces, which have a history of massive human rights abuses. With greater control of governmental functions, the Indonesian military could further dilute democracy. In Malaysia, while Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim fought for decades as an opposition leader for democratic reforms, he finally won the top job thanks to a coalition government that includes the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). This long-time autocratic party ruled the country for decades. To keep the UMNO placated, Anwar has been quiet about many human rights issues, sometimes even appearing to have lost control of his government to the UMNO.

Let’s reflect on South Asia. The issue of democratic decline in Bangladesh has raised its head yet again. India, another important South Asian country, is also going through an election phase but with a drift toward regressive democracy. The modality of India’s democratic decline reveals how democracies die today: not through a dramatic coup or midnight arrests of opposition leaders. Instead, it moves through the fully legal harassment of the opposition, intimidation of the media, and centralization of executive power. By equating government criticism with disloyalty to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is diminishing the idea that opposition is a legitimate political force. India today is no longer the world’s largest democracy that stands for the rights of its citizens, becoming a voice for its minorities and all other groups belonging to different ideological and religious backgrounds.

Pakistan, a country on the cusp of holding general elections, is also not following the true spirit of democratic norms. The Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency’s (PILDAT) ‘Quality of Democracy’ report for 2023 is a timely reminder of the immense challenge Pakistan faces in its journey towards becoming a truly representative, working democracy. PILDAT notes, “Political parties … continually suffer from a crisis of confidence as their political fate depends not on their popularity or the cogence of their governance policies” but on how skilfully they manage the expectations of powerful state institutions. This indicates that 245 million people across Pakistan do not matter to the political parties, but their seats do!

It’s time that South and Southeast Asian countries learn from their past mistakes and move towards a truly democratic path that requires free, fair, and transparent elections.

Reference Link:- https://southasia.com.pk/2024/02/02/where-masses-dont-matter/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *