By Nisha Biswal
For the first time in post-colonial history, all of the countries of South Asia are democracies.
From Bhutan to Bangladesh, Kabul to Kathmandu, democratic institutions are taking hold and giving people a voice in how they are governed. But these historic gains could be short-lived if troubling trends in some impending political transitions go unchecked.
Over the next six months, more than one billion voters across South Asia will choose leaders of some of the most diverse and vibrant countries in the world. Coming elections in India and Afghanistan and successful recent elections in Pakistan and Bhutan illustrate the depth of passion voters across the region have shown for electoral democracy.
Yet, major setbacks in Bangladesh and the Maldives, and worrying signs in Nepal underscore just how fragile and vulnerable these democracies are and why the international community must remain engaged in supporting democracy in South Asia.
In Bangladesh, as the ruling Awami League Party and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party dispute how to hold constitutionally mandated elections this winter, there has been increasing political instability — with rallies and general strikes that have at times turned violent. The longer the two sides cannot agree on a framework for an interim government to oversee the next election, the more likely Bangladeshi citizens will take to the streets to express their frustrations.
In the Maldives, the island nation is on the edge of a political crisis. After weeks of political bickering and dubious stalling tactics, including a rejection of the first round of voting, which most observers deemed free and fair, the Maldives faces one last chance to salvage its democracy — with runoff elections this Saturday.
Any further delay or derailing of the elections process will thwart the democratic aspirations of the Maldivian people and erode their right to elect a leader of their choice. The election on November 16, and then the prompt inauguration of a new president, is crucial to averting a dangerous setback. The Maldives’ political leaders and institutions must show they can deliver on the hopes and needs of their citizens.
The United States and the international community call on all political leaders and institutions of government to act in the interest of the people and in safeguarding the democratic process.
One bright spot is Nepal’s November 19 elections, where thousands of candidates are vigorously contesting to replace the country’s Constituent Assembly, disbanded in May 2012. The new Assembly’s primary responsibility will be to draft a permanent constitution, establishing a political structure that reflects the diversity of Nepal’s people. Yet, despite growing enthusiasm among Nepali voters, a collection of fringe opposition groups are fomenting unrest and strikes in an effort to undo this hard-won progress.
The reality is that no democracy — including the United States — is immune to political infighting and partisan politics. With the recent government shutdown, Americans experienced the far-reaching and damaging consequences that ensue when politicians are unwilling to put the good of the country above ideological differences and political partisanship. But ultimately, we also witnessed our political leaders finding ways to compromise to move the country forward.
What happens in South Asia matters to the United States. Much of the story of the 21st century will be written in this region. With a sixth of the world’s population, a third of the world’s Muslims, and 800 million youth under age 30, the choices South Asians make will have significant consequences for the their countries, the region and the world.
This is why the United States has actively supported electoral reform, institution building, parliamentary strengthening and rule of law across the region. Successful political transitions are critical for consolidating democratic and economic gains and bringing people out of poverty.
Perhaps nowhere will this be more evident than in Afghanistan, where presidential and provincial elections in April 2014 will either support a successful security transition or undermine the gains of the past decade. Though election preparations are on track, Afghans must remain vigilant to ensure a political process that allows citizens to freely choose their leaders without manipulation, vote-rigging or other forms of fraud.
In India next spring, 600 million citizens will embark on one of the world’s largest electoral processes when they vote in parliamentary elections. A vigorous and open public debate is already underway.
There are successful lessons to be learned from each of these countries’ histories and from the recent election successes in Pakistan and Bhutan. For the first time, Pakistan’s national elections culminated in the transfer of power from one democratically-elected civilian government to the next, and Bhutan’s successful National Assembly elections in July also led to a peaceful transfer of power to a new prime minister. These marked historic steps of democratic evolution in the region.
The key now is for citizens across South Asia to demand a credible, free and fair electoral process that validates their voices and choices in a peaceful manner. At its core, democracy is about protecting the rights of individuals, especially their right to vote and express themselves freely.
These are not American values; they are universal values. And the United States will continue to champion them across South Asia so that all societies achieve their full potential — and enhance the stability and prosperity of their region and the world.