Around this time last year, the political climate across Southasia looked grim. In Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto had just returned after years in exile, and had been greeted with bomb explosions as she made her way out of the airport. She was killed soon thereafter. While President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the Maldives was making all the right noises about democratisation, civil liberties in the atolls continued to come under attack, and opposition leaders were travelling out to lobby for international support. In Nepal, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) had walked out of the government, the November elections for the Constituent Assembly had been cancelled (for the second time), and there were serious doubts about whether the peace process would last. But the coming year has proved restorative in all these countries. Indeed, 2008 has been a year of fragile yet consistent democratisation, and the people in each have spoken, surprising pundits and putting their respective countries on the path of democracy. At this tenuous point, it is important to remember that this process is neither irreversible, nor is it deep-rooted enough for anyone to be complacent.
Pakistan saw elections in the early part of the year. Democratic forces were given a resounding mandate, and the configuration meant that both of the key political parties – Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N) – were forced to work together. While the uneasy coalition did not last for several reasons, the process did see Pervez Musharraf becoming steadily weaker. After almost a decade, the man who had played an efficient double game with the Americans and Islamist militants was thrown out. The army, headed by a new chief, retreated.
Yet even as the re-emergence of a civilian leadership is a positive sign, Pakistan continues to be in a mess. Tribal areas in the northwest are out of government control, and serve as a base for a newly empowered Taliban. There remains a trust deficit between the parties and the army, with intelligence agencies acting autonomously. The economic crisis has devastated the country. And with US President-elect Barack Obama promising stepped-up military operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan, do not be surprised if the Pakistan-US alliance goes through severe strains. All of this means that the process of democratisation – painful at the best of times – will have to face challenges it could do without.
Meanwhile, Nepal has steadily stabilised itself since the overthrow of the king. April of this year saw elections to the Constituent Assembly, fulfilling a promise first made to the people in 1951. From this process, the Maoists emerged as the single largest party. The state also finally recovered a degree of legitimacy and strength that it had steadily lost during the insurgency and then royal rule. Ethnic groups organised themselves, with regional and identity aspirations finding a democratic channel in a very ‘inclusive’ Constituent Assembly that could be an example to many advanced societies. It is a victory of Nepali democracy, and a sign of its power to accommodate and absorb, that those who viscerally challenged the Nepali state have today become the face of that state.
At the same time, the fate of the peace process as well as of democratic pluralism in Nepal remains somewhat uncertain. The politics of consensus among the major parties has collapsed, leading to increasing mistrust; this polarisation is obviously not conducive when the country continues to have two ‘armies’, and the constitution-writing process has barely begun. While the Maoists have received a legitimate public mandate, and they are making the right noises about commitments to human rights, press freedom and pluralism, the situation on the ground is different.
The best news has come out of the Maldives. After many thought that the country had no hope but to live under the autocracy of Gayoom, the democratic opposition that has built up over the past few years culminated with elections in early November. Thirty years after he took over, Gayoom had to concede electoral defeat to Mohamed Nasheed, a political prisoner under his regime. Despite the initial euphoria, there are major challenges ahead. President Nasheed has to deal not only with high popular expectations, but also to take specific policy decisions on an issue as mind-boggling as climate change.
The political mood in other parts of the region is difficult to weigh on the democracy scale. The army-backed government in Bangladesh looks as entrenched as it did last year, but there has been movement on elections, currently slated to be held in late December, along with potential of lifting the state of emergency before then. These could possibly be a turning point if all forces participate, if they are held in a free and fair manner, if the results are widely accepted, and if the army does not intervene. On the whole, the elections are a vindication of those independent thinkers in Bangladeshi society, including the Dhaka press, that never accepted the army-backed ‘government of advisors’.
Even Tibetans, both in and out of Tibet, made their most significant push for democracy in decades this year, albeit leading to a severe crackdown by the Chinese state, similar to the response received by the Saffron Revolution in Burma late last year. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s conflict has spiralled from bad to worse, with the military onslaught weakening the LTTE but also leading to an almost unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the north and east.
Politics is not linear. In Southasia – with its volatile mix of social inequity, economic deprivation, absence of full political rights, and multiple divides – political churning is even more unstable. Now the focus turns to 2009, for the democratic achievements of 2008 will need to be institutionalised and further consolidated, even as newer challenges crop up.