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28 July, 2013

Election season in South Asia

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

South Asia, home to one-fifth of the world’s population and half of the world’s poor, is experiencing the springtime of democratic elections. However, there is a long way to go to ensure that the exercise is genuine.

The region comprises eight countries. Among them are three of the five most populous countries of the world. Their progress along the democratic path, after many flip-flops, offers hope for the future of the region, which has witnessed much instability in the post-World War II period.

Pakistan, the second largest country of the region after India, and Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan kingdom, held parliamentary elections during the past few weeks. There was smooth and peaceful transfer of power from one party to another in both the countries.

The Pakistan People’s Party, which had won the first elections held after the downfall of Pervez Musharraf, was roundly defeated by the Pakistan Muslim League (N), and its leader, Nawaz Sharif, became the prime minister. The election of the new president is scheduled for next month.

According to Michael Gahler, who headed the European Union’s team of observers, the elections were not free and fair. The Election Commission did not fulfil its responsibilities honestly, he said. Asad Ismi, correspondent of CCPA Monitor, journal of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, described the elections as a political disaster.

Ismi pointed out that the PPP, the Awami National Party of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and the Muttahida Quami Movement of Karachi could not campaign because of the massive violence directed against them by the Pakistani Taliban, resulting in the death of more than 100 people, including several candidates. He added, “The Pakistani Taliban is part of the terrorist network created by the army, which helps it inflict horrendous violence on the country to destablise it, politically and economically, so that no strong counterforce to the army can emerge.” It did not attack Nawaz’s party.

Since his assumption of office, Nawaz Sharif has talked of the need to improve relations with India. However, few expect the army to share his enthusiasm on this score.

A British protectorate during the colonial period, Bhutan began its career as an independent nation when it became a member of the United Nations in 1971. In the first democratic elections held five years ago, Druk Phuensum Tshoogpa (meaning Peace and Prosperity Party) was voted to power. In the recent elections, the opposition People’s Democratic Party seized power, winning 32 of the 47 seats in the national assembly.

The new prime minister, Tshering Togbay, holds a master’s degree from Harvard University. Some observers believe the Indian government, which was not happy with DPT prime minister Jigme Thinley’s attempt to cosy up to China, helped the PDP by withdrawing the subsidies on kerosene and cooking gas supplies to Bhutan as the poll campaign was picking up.

In the Maldives, Mohammed Nasheed filed nomination papers last week for the presidential elections to be held in September. He had been elected president in the multiparty elections of 2008. Early last year his vice-president, Mohammed Waheed, ousted him in a coup with help from supporters of former leader Maumoon Abdul Qayoom and elements of the security forces.

Ahead on the poll calendar are Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and India. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was last re-elected in 2010, does not have to face immediate elections but provincial elections are due in that country.

The Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) came to power through democratic elections five years ago but was unable to put in position a new Constitution for the country. With the political spectrum too fragmented, the chances of a stable regime emerging appear to be slim.

With the five-year term of the Bangladesh parliament due to end in October, fresh elections have to be held before January next year. The atmosphere in the country is surcharged with a war crimes tribunal, constituted by the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina, handing down severe punishment to several leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami for their role in wiping out many leading intellectuals of the country on the eve of its liberation from Pakistan. Early this year 18 opposition parties led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party had brought the country to a halt with a 30-day general strike.

Even more problematic is the transition in Afghanistan, from where US troops are due to pull out next year. A few days ago President Hamid Karzai signed a new law for the conduct of presidential and provincial elections.

The South Asian election scene certainly is not picture perfect but then the fact that the countries are able to move towards multiparty elections is a hopeful sign. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 23, 2013.

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