Home Top News Opinion: Asia’s Imperfect Elections-Democracy Remains Intact, Even If It’s Procedural

Opinion: Asia’s Imperfect Elections-Democracy Remains Intact, Even If It’s Procedural

Opinion:  Asia’s Imperfect Elections-Democracy Remains Intact, Even If It’s Procedural


The dust has yet to settle on Pakistan’s messy election, but it has become abundantly clear that irrespective of the outcome, the country’s dysfunctional democracy remains intact. The same can be said of other countries in Asia that have gone to the polls since the start of the year. They range from a virtual one-party state (Bangladesh) to a country where the incoming president will be a former military strongman (Indonesia), to a vibrant democracy whose very right to exist is being challenged (Taiwan). What does this say about the state of democracy in Asia? Despite being steeped in controversies, these elections demonstrate that democracy remains alive and kicking in Asia as most countries in the region continue to derive legitimacy from their status as democratic states.

Pakistan’s Dysfunctional Democracy

Take Pakistan, where national assembly polls took place on February 8 after much delay. A lot has been said about the attempts of the so-called “establishment” (military and intelligence services) to pull the strings of Pakistani politics. This has been apparent in the arrest and conviction of Imran Khan and the simultaneous efforts to prop up Nawaz Sharif after his exile and convictions were overturned. The disruption of mobile and internet services on election day, along with the slower-than-anticipated vote counting, further undermined the credibility of the electoral process.

However, this overlooks that fact that despite the best efforts of the establishment to purge Khan and his party (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI), independent candidates affiliated with the PTI secured more seats in the national assembly than any other party. This does not deny the awkward outcome of the runner up (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PML-N) leading the next government. However, what it does is demonstrate that the establishment does not have complete control over the narrative of Pakistani politics.

Thumbs-Down To The Military

Moreover, despite Pakistan’s dire economic, security and geopolitical situation, the country’s democracy is arguably in a stronger position today than it was a decade ago. For much of Pakistan’s history, the military has been revered by the population as an organisation that was incorruptible and vital for ensuring the country’s stability. Now this shine has come off, as noted by violent demonstrations following Khan’s arrest in May 2023, which included unprecedented attacks on military installations. This has reduced the appetite of the military to assume power directly in Pakistani politics. While no prime minister in Pakistan’s 77-year history has completed a full-term in office – and the incoming administration is likely to face a similar predicament as a precarious coalition government – the fact that the most recent election was the third consecutive election in Pakistan shows that democracy has become more well-entrenched.

Fears About A Former Military Strongman In Indonesia

In the case of Indonesia, where the world’s largest direct presidential vote took place on February 14, former military general Prabowo Subianto secured victory. Prabowo’s military background, which has been chequered with allegations of human rights abuses in East Timor as well as his status as the former son-in-law of Indonesia’s last dictator, Suharto, has raised concerns about Indonesia’s political trajectory.

However, this overlooks the fact that despite his authoritarian tendencies, Prabowo has contested (and lost) elections on several occasions and accepted the outcome (albeit sometimes a bit reluctantly). Moreover, Indonesia’s decentralised political system and its culture of consensus-driven decision-making impose checks on the president’s powers. There are genuine concerns about the state of Indonesian democracy – from the diminished powers of the country’s Corruption Eradication Commission to the persistence of dynastic politics – but Prabowo’s presidency alone is unlikely to unravel this.

Bangladesh’s One-Party State

In Bangladesh, the outcome of the parliamentary elections on January 7 was a foregone conclusion with the purge of the main opposition parties – the Bangladesh National Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami. The low voter turnout (just 40% compared to over 80% in the 2018 election) further undermined the credibility of the polls. But the very fact that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government was eager to strengthen the legitimacy of the electoral process – with the participation of over 100 election observers, and almost 2,000 candidates vying for 300 directly elected seats, including over 400 independent candidates – signals an effort to maintain a veneer of democracy.

Notwithstanding Bangladesh’s turn to autocracy, Sheikh Hasina’s age – she is 76 and will be 81 by the time she completes her fifth term – along with the absence of any clear second-tier leadership (her son lives in the US and has expressed limited interest in entering politics, while Hasina’s sister and daughter lack the political credentials), alludes to a succession challenge and power vacuum in the country’s politics in the future.

Politics Of Patronage

A common thread running through all these elections is the politics of patronage. This means that the primary objective of leaders is not to serve the people but to appease their patronage networks. Related to this are well-entrenched family clans that permeate political systems across the three countries: The Bhutto-Zardaris and Sharifs have dominated politics in Pakistan for decades, and until recently, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia were labelled the “battling begums” of Bangladeshi politics.

Even in Indonesia, Jokowi – who was initially welcomed for being a political outsider – is seen to be forming his own political dynasty, with his son Gibran Rakabuming Raka becoming the next vice-president after the constitutional court – which was chaired by Jokowi’s brother-in-law – granted him an exemption on the age requirement to hold the vice-presidency.

Fluid Affiliations

With personality trumping ideology, party affiliations have also become fluid. This is most evident in the case of Indonesia, where Jokowi endorsed Prabowo rather than Ganjar Pranowo, who was the candidate from his own party (the PDI-P). Politicians are also more prone to crossing party lines. Again, Indonesia provides the most prominent example of this, with Prabowo joining Jokowi’s government as defence minister after both competed against each other in the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections.

In Pakistan, the constitution bars elected MPs from defecting to other parties. However, PTI-affiliated independents are not subject to these restrictions, which has led to several defections to other parties. Imran Khan has been welcomed by Pakistan’s population for bringing a fresh face to the country’s politics. However, he also represents a notable example of a personality cult superseding the party manifesto in importance.

Asia Goes To The Polls

What does this say about the rest of Asia, where over a billion registered voters are scheduled to go to the polls this year? Aside from the aforementioned countries, South Korea will be holding parliamentary elections in April. Every country in South Asia (minus Nepal) also faces elections in 2023-24, with India being the elephant in the room as the world’s largest democracy. In a region as large and diverse as Asia, it is futile to identify a common thread running across all these elections.

But despite concerns over democratic backsliding across the region, it is apparent that there is at least a commitment to maintaining a democratic system of government in most countries, even if it is largely for procedural purposes.

[Dr Chietigj Bajpaee is Senior Research Fellow for South Asia at Chatham House, a UK-based public policy think tank. He has worked with several think tanks and risk consultancies in the US, Europe, and Asia. He is the author of China in India’s Post-Cold War Engagement with Southeast Asia (Routledge, 2022)]

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.



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