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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2967

Ballot Power – Political El Nino Effect In South Asia

By Asian Tribune India correspondent

New Delhi, 04 April ( A political El Nino effect has hit South Asia that has seen ballot power manifesting itself with full force all across the region, which with the exception of India, was long suffering from a severe drought of democracy. There were times when chances of reviving democracy in some of the deficient South Asian countries looked remote. For India it was not a matter of embarrassment that it was the only functioning democracy in the region: it was more a matter of concern to be surrounded by unstable nations ruled by unpopular autocrats.

In Pakistan, a year-long nation-wide movement with lawyers in the vanguard ended Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf's virtual one-man rule. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid) was trounced in the national assembly as well as provincial polls. After a gap of almost nine years democracy is returning to Pakistan.

Direct or indirect military rule, however, can still return to Pakistan. The world will be watching how the coalition government, with two former adversaries as its principal allies, plays out the massive mandate from the people. The democratically elected government has to show its mettle in not only addressing pressing domestic issues like price rise and economic slowdown but also has to demonstrate its will and ability to fight terrorism.

The world will not be taking its eyes off the army chief, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, chosen for the post by Musharraf, the darling of the West. Kiyani's reputation as pro-West is no guarantee that he will never boot out the elected representatives. But unlike the previous military takeovers in Pakistan, Gen Kiyani's immediate priority must be to restore the image of his army, which had for the first time since 1947 taken a beating, thanks to the hugely unpopular rule of Gen Musharraf.

Pakistan's history of army generals throwing out politicians in the name of 'saving' their country from their vile and incompetent rule cannot be overlooked. Then, there is always the possibility of either the politicians or the military establishment raising the Indian bogey to pre-empt any popular opposition to a military takeover.

Kashmir always provides the spark for Pakistanis to raise the India bogey and the new government, true to form, has made the usual noises about Pakistan never 'forgetting' Kashmir.

In Nepal, an autocratic king has been all but consigned to history's dustbin while the country gets ready for electing a Constitutional Assembly on April 10, which will pave the way for the Himalayan Country formally declaring itself a Republic. As in Pakistan, democracy is being revived in Nepal after an interval with this vital difference that from a kingdom Nepal is set to become a republic while Pakistan jettisons its banana republic image.

Nepal's road ahead can still be bumpy because the Maoists and the seven parties who first fought against a particularly autocratic 15-month spell of King Gyanendra's rule in 2005-06 have not been able to outlive their mutual suspicions. Besides, the Nepalese mainstream political parties and their leaders are more adept at snipping at each other than good governance. Like India's Janata Dal, Nepal Congress is a political amoeba and has many variants at play.

Tiny Bhutan's monarch sprung a surprise on the world by deciding to transfer his powers to elected representatives even when his subjects appeared happy to be ruled by him and had shown no yearning for 'democracy'. The kingdom's first general election had to be preceded by mock exercises to familiarize the voter with the intricacies of voting.

The ushering in of multi-party democracy in Bhutan, however, will not mean that, reduced to a ceremonial post, the Bhutanese monarch will cease to count in running the affairs of the country. The much talked about 'gross national happiness' of Bhutan has also to encounter a few serious problems, apart from that of poverty that it has neglected for long.

Nearly one lakh—a sixth of the country's population—people were virtually expelled from Bhutan about a decade ago because as ethnic Nepalese they were not considered eligible for Bhutanese nationality. Some of these ethnic Nepalese are getting organised and will surely become a headache for the administration.

Bhutan also has to act tough with insurgent groups, largely Indian, who hide in the country's jungles and other inaccessible areas.

After two postponements, the Bangladesh polls may finally be held by the end of this year. At least that is the word from the military-backed 'caretaker' government, which has been in office since January 2007—much longer than its usual course of six months. People of Bangladesh were getting tired of the uninterrupted and long spell of violence in the country, sparked by what many believe mutual antipathy of the two 'Begums' who control the two largest parties, Awami League led by Begum Shaikh Hasina, and Bangladesh National Party led by Begum Khaleda Zia. The caretaker government had taken over from Begum Zia's administration.

The people of Bangladesh had initially reacted favourably to the installation of a caretaker government that enjoyed support of the military and launched a drive to cleanse the politics of corruption and cronyism. But the honeymoon between the military-backed government and the people of the country has ended. In the name of removing corruption and cleansing politics, the caretaker government has become highhanded. About 150 senior politicians have been sent to jail. An ailing Hasina is not allowed to go abroad for treatment. Another 400,000 people are in detention. The regime in Dhaka no longer evokes the kind of positive response that it did after the ouster of the BNP government.

The Maldives is so completely identified as a tourist paradise that few care to think about its acute democracy drought. Small demonstrations by groups opposed to President Maumoon Abdul Gayooom, one of the longest rulers in the world, were hardly noticed by the outside world. But a bomb blast in Male, the capital, last September sent alarm waves across the world, especially when the people behind the attack were alleged to be linked to terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Al Qaeda.

The Maldives is slated to have its first multi-party election by the end of this year. The people who have been unhappy with the way their country has been ruled by President Gayoom will probably have an opportunity to give vent to their anger for the first time in their lives.

Peace and normality may still be a distant dream in Afghanistan but the country is slated for another nation-wide election next year, five years after the previous one. President Hamid Karzai, who may well be re-elected for another five-year term, seems determined not to allow the renewed militancy inside Afghanistan to derail the poll time-table.

Myanmar may not be strictly a part of South Asia but it is one of India's close neighbors. It has perhaps the most incorrigible dictatorship in the region. The ruling junta in Myanmar has declared that it would be holding elections soon. The junta's gesture may look insufficient and hollow as the winner of the last national poll continues to be under house arrest. But the military men of Myanmar would not have opted for even a token gesture but for the pressure to let democracy into the country. The military in Myanmar had shown its bayonets in ruthless fashion against the protesting monks late last year. The people of Myanmar, monks included, may have the chance to show that the power that they draw from the ballot is no less potent.

- Asian Tribune -

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