Will democracy in South Asia- or anywhere- survive 2024?


Will democracy in South Asia- or anywhere- survive 2024?

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This is the global year of elections like few others in recent memory. Over 60 countries, including Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in South Asia, will hold national polls and elect new governments in 2024 – an average of more than one per week!

Considering that more than 40 percent of the world’s population will vote in some of the most powerful and wealthy countries and some of the weakest, the most despotic and most stressed states – all in a global environment of flux and unrest, the very state of the future of democracy as an ideology, is at stake.

While it is too early to predict the specific outcomes of this year-long vote-fest, overall the elections are sure to determine who will control the world and shape the main part of the 21st century. Hope is in short supply – the election year has already dawned in the backdrop of classic forms of liberal and plural democracies under existential attacks from autocratic rulers from China to Russia, India to Bangladesh, Hungary to Chad, and the UK to Israel.

Hope is in short supply – the election year has already dawned in the backdrop of classic forms of liberal and plural democracies under existential attacks from autocratic rulers from China to Russia, India to Bangladesh, Hungary to Chad, and the UK to Israel.

- Adnan Rehmat

Pakistan, one of the ten largest democracies in the world and which goes to polls on February 8, has been little different with growing discontent at crackdown on free speech and wanton procedural disregard for fairness and level-playing field for all contestants. Bangladesh has just conducted a controversial one-sided poll race and India is on course for the most divisive and rowdy elections this century. 

While causes of disillusionment with eroding democracy vary in different countries, in Pakistan, some new studies establish that the system of elections and brand of democracy now embody diminishing returns and must be radically reformed. A new study by Gallup Pakistan analyzing the previous 11 national elections has determined a discernable recurring pattern that is antithetical to a productive and representative democracy and its supposed dividends.

Using detailed data, the study indicates that through procedural, legal and electoral manipulation by various state institutions, the national elections scheduled for February will unlikely be any different and hence not contribute to stability – either political or economic. Another study by organization Pildat analyzes the quality of democracy in 2023 against several indicators and documents a major erosion in terms of the ability of the polity to solve Pakistan’s problems-- that is contributing to a polycrisis and policy paralysis. 

The UN’s flagship publication representing its work in Pakistan in its latest edition also bluntly blames the elite capture of an extractive economy and a manipulative subservient polity that has embellished a stranglehold on this capture. It says this choking grip on politics is now so acute it is unraveling the state’s ability to maintain its fundamentals.

The publication goes on to warn that if Pakistan does not attend to this urgently and undertake radical political and economic reforms to make the economy function in favor of its growing population rather than its vampirish elite, the country faces an operational collapse.

What can Pakistan do, apart from going through procedural motions to hold an election as lip service to democracy? Pakistan’s key political stakeholders, including the military and judiciary, must undertake the unusual but necessary steps of sitting down together with the political parties to rationalize their current self-assumed abnormal roles in controlling and coercively governing the country.

All stakeholders will have to change if Pakistan is to function as a normative state at peace with itself and is not a threat externally. The political parties need to sign a charter of democracy and economy that identifies a common ground approach to governance and economy so that they don’t become stunted.

The parties also need to majorly democratize themselves to shift from dynastic and monopoliztic practices to become properly democratic, inclusive and participatory to expand ownership of democracy to the people.

Also, political stability must be twinned with economic constancy. The Pakistani state needs to become leaner and majorly downsize governance to the provinces, leaving itself to just managing the federation rather than running the country.

The state needs to shift away from being in the business of running business through a major privatization effort or a public-private partnership approach, ending all subsidies to public-sector elite businesses, including those owned and run by the security establishment. It also needs to actively promote and support private enterprise through business-friendly policies and environment to create jobs and revenue. 

These solutions are not unique or limited for application to Pakistan. To address growing global discontent and disillusionment with the diminishing returns from democracy, optimal participation and empowerment of people everywhere must replace mere procedural democracy in all the countries that will go to elections this year. Global stability, economic development and public welfare is at stake. Which means the very future of the world is at stake. 

- Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science. Twitter: @adnanrehmat1

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view