Event Reports

Democracy and electoral challenges in South Asia

The South Asian region is witnessing some kind of democratic upsurge. For the first time, all the countries in the region have embraced democracy. Yet, democratic transitions in the region are filled with uncertainties and fragility. South Asian countries need to learn from each other's democratic experiences and support each other.

2015
Oct
30

The South Asian region is witnessing some kind of democratic upsurge. For the first time, all the countries in the region have embraced democracy. Yet, democratic transitions in the region are filled with uncertainties and fragility. Although elections are held at regular intervals in a free and fair manner with record participation from citizens, the democratic and electoral processes are beset with serious challenges. Issues of violence, corruption, lack of governance, flawed systems of representation, the role of money, dynastic and family-centred politics seem to be eroding the initial democratic gains in most countries of the region. Taking note of some of the emerging challenges facing South Asia, the Observer Research Foundation, in collaboration with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), organised a panel discussion, “Democracy and Electoral Challenges in South Asia” on 29 September 2015, to get deeper into some of the above mentioned challenges. The panel discussion was kick-started with an opening presentation by S.Y. Quraishi, former Chief Election Commissioner of India.

In his presentation, Quraishi took a quick tour of major electoral challenges in South Asia. He highlighted the unique nature of the South Asian region, hosting nearly 60% of the world’s democratic population. According to him, the region’s close proximity to non-democratic China makes it even more relevant for democracy watchers. He drew the attention of participants to some of the spectacular achievements of the region, especially granting of voting rights to women, even before many European nations did so.

Emphasising the role of the Election Commission in conducting free and fair elections and making the electoral process credible, Quraishi highlighted the continued high voter turnout in these countries. He termed the Indian scenario a “great election, flawed democracy”. Doubting the efficacy of the present first-past-the-post system, Quraishi said that during the 2014 general elections, although the Bahujan Samaj Party got the third largest vote share, it ended up with zero seats. This reflects the flawed dynamics of the electoral system. He concluded his presentation by pointing out the role played by an assertive civil society, a robust dispute-resolution mechanism, and a free and open media to safeguard India’s democratic system and its vibrancy.

S.D. Muni, a South Asia expert and a former professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, spoke at length about the pains of democratic transition in the region. For instance, most countries in the region fare poorly when it comes to election processes and quality of representation. Further, institution building and accountability are not yet ingrained in the democratic governance of most countries in the region. For instance, in Pakistan, the army has been playing an excessive role in the country’s democratic structure and processes.

Drawing the attention of participants to some of the most critical challenges that the region’s young democracies face, he emphasised the negative impact of money in elections. To him, money in politics has played an overarching role in influencing people’s electoral choices and the entire outcome of elections. In a country like the Maldives, which is heavily dependent on tourism, electoral choices reflect this dependency. Thus, according to Muni, “reality is not always reflected by electoral processes” as at times electoral choices are influenced by certain external and internal factors rather than the candidates’ ability to govern.

Jayant Prasad, a former ambassador to Nepal and Afghanistan, succinctly captured the stress and tensions impacting the democratic transitions in the region. To him, while India has expertise in conducting peaceful elections in a free and fair manner, most South Asian counterparts have had setbacks and challenges. There are issues of credibility and quality. For instance, Nepal is fighting a violent internal battle over the process of constitution-making and content. Similarly, Pakistan since its independence has either been governed by military rulers or the army has been strongly influencing elected leaders. Afghanistan, on the other hand, has been able to conduct democratic elections, but the discrepancies in the process, like in counting of votes, put a question mark on their credibility. For Prasad, the democratic transition in South Asia is incomplete as democratic institutions remain fragile.

Niranjan Sahoo, Senior Fellow, ORF, sought to highlight the role of violence, ethnic conflicts, terrorism, violent insurgency and patronage politics in eroding the vibrancy of democracy in the region. For him, countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Afghanistan face their existential threats from violent groups and religious radicalism. He pointed out how the spread of information and communication technology and new/social media have strengthened the political participation and raised the accountability and responsiveness. However, the same transformative technology also offers huge challenges to the state and its elected representatives.

Zoya Hasan, chair of the panel discussion, summed up the discussion by listing some of the key challenges faced by most South Asian democracies. She pointed out that ‘Administrative Management’ and the prolonged duration of elections might have an impact on the outcome. She further highlighted the issue of funding of elections which according to her is the biggest cause of corruption and mis-governance. More worrisome is the absence of internal democracy in most political parties which goes against the grain of democracy. She also questioned the representative credentials of elected officials. “For the first time since independence, a single party majority came to power with most of the winning representatives garnering a vote share of less than 50%” and “the representation of minorities reached as low as of 3% of the elected representatives, with no Muslim candidate was elected even in a state like Uttar Pradesh.”

In the end, speakers and participants affirmed the role of election funding, integrity of electoral process, quality of representation and social media and technology in shaping the future of democracy in the region. They all were of the view that non-state actors and civil society would continue to play a critical role. There was consensus that South Asian countries need to learn from each other’s democratic experiences and support each other.

Report prepared by Heena Makhija, Research Intern, ORF Delhi.