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  • Writer's pictureJamie Thannoo

2024: The Year of Elections in South Asia

Written by Jamie Thannoo

Edited by Michael Hilliard

 

As the world turns its calendar to 2024, it's not just another year ticking by; it's a year of monumental importance in the realm of global geopolitics, with a particular focus on South Asia. This region, representing nearly half the world's population, is set to experience a wave of elections in nations including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka. To the untrained eye, these may seem like routine democratic exercises, but to those versed in the intricate dynamics of global geopolitics, they are events of critical significance.  As these nations are not mere players on the global stage; they are pivotal chess pieces in a complex game involving over 300 nuclear warheads, significant military might, and strategic geopolitical positions bridging East Asia and the Middle East. 


India (Orange), Pakistan (Left Green), Bangladesh (Right Green), Bhutan (Upper Red) and Sri Lanka (Lower Red)are all heading to the ballot box in 2024

These elections come at a time when these countries are delicately balancing their relations with major powers like the West, China, and Russia amidst the echoes of the 2020s' economic challenges.


The outcomes of which, will directly impact nearly 2 billion people,


many of whom have experienced the stark contrasts of poverty and economic growth. The political landscapes in these countries are marked by potent dynasties, charismatic populists, and ideologies ranging from hardline religious views to communism, making them a hotbed for potential shifts in regional security and military postures. Additionally, the looming threats of climate change and the youth-heavy demographic profile of several of these countries add multiple layers of complexity to these elections, making them a subject of intense scrutiny for defence analysts and strategists worldwide. 


The decisions made in 2024's polling booths across South Asia could reshape not just regional, but global political and security landscapes, making it a year of paramount importance in military and geopolitical circles.


So what elections in Asia should you be watching closely?



Bangladesh - (January 7)


Current Prime Minister: Sheikh Hasina (Assumed Office 2009)

Current Leading Party: Awami League


Bangladesh is in the midst of a bitter dispute between its two major parties, but you probably wouldn't know it based on the ballot in January.


Over the past year, Bangladesh has been a hotspot of civil unrest. The opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has been vociferous in demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the establishment of a caretaker government to oversee the electoral process. This demand stems from growing concerns about the ruling party’s hold over the democratic process.


Illustration of Sheikh Hasina

The tension escalated as the parliamentary elections drew nearer, leading to a series of protests that often culminated in violence. Notably, in late October, Dhaka witnessed a massive gathering of over 100,000 protestors, which tragically resulted in the deaths of at least 16 people, including two police officers, and the arrest of nearly 10,000. This surge in detentions has pushed the capacity of Bangladeshi prisons to its limits, signalling a concerning trend in state response to civil unrest.


Observations from international watchdogs like Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders suggest a pattern in Bangladesh that resonates with global trends in the 2020s - a gradual erosion of the rule of law and an intensification of state repression against dissenting voices. This trend, combined with economic challenges, has fueled widespread public demonstrations.


The upcoming election, already being boycotted by the BNP and its allies from various political spectrums, seems poised to favour the ruling Awami League. Such a political landscape raises questions about the pluralistic nature of Bangladesh’s democracy.


Prime Minister Hasina, in her second tenure since 2009 and the daughter of Bangladesh's founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, has overseen significant economic transformations. Under her leadership, the country has capitalised on its booming garment industry, driving economic growth and urban migration. However, her administration's approach to governance, particularly the abolition of non-partisan caretaker governments and the implementation of stringent security laws like the Digital Security Act, has sparked controversy and concerns about authoritarian tendencies.


The Rapid Action Battalion, a special forces police unit, has come under international scrutiny for


over 1,000 alleged extrajudicial killings and disappearances since 2009, adding to the growing human rights concerns in Bangladesh.


Protestors in Bangladesh (Source: VOA)

Further complicating the political landscape is the detention of key BNP figures, including their leader Khaleda Zia, a former Prime Minister and widow of ex-President Ziaur Rahman. Zia's imprisonment on graft charges, which the BNP claims are politically motivated, and her deteriorating health under house arrest since 2020, have intensified political tensions.


Amidst this turmoil, international dynamics play a significant role. Western governments have increasingly criticised the Bangladeshi government, with the US imposing sanctions on members of the Rapid Action Battalion and other individuals for allegedly undermining democratic processes. In contrast, regional powers like India and China have maintained a more reserved stance, focusing on their strategic and economic interests in Bangladesh.

The current political scenario in Bangladesh, with arrested BNP leaders, a somewhat ambivalent stance from major Asian powers, and a potential economic recovery, presents a complex challenge. The government might withstand the current wave of dissent, but the lack of a conciliatory approach and potential escalation of tensions could lead to further unrest and violence.


As Bangladesh navigates these turbulent waters, the outcome of the upcoming elections and the subsequent political developments will be crucial in determining the country's trajectory. The international community, particularly defense and strategic analysts, will closely watch how Bangladesh addresses its internal challenges while balancing its relationships with global powers.



Bhutan - (January 9)


Current Prime Minister: Chogyal Dago Rigdzin (Assumed Office 2023)

Current Leading Party: People's Democratic Party


A South Asia election round-up offers an opportunity to examine Bhutan, an often overlooked kingdom where a democratic system was only introduced in 2008.

In the Bhutanese system, all registered parties compete in the first round of voting before a run-off takes place between the parties that won the most votes.


As part of this system, the incumbent Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa was eliminated in the first round on November 30, while the People's Democratic Party (PDP) took 42.54% of the vote, well ahead of the second place Bhutan Tendrel Party. The PDP and their leader Tshering Tobgay, who previously governed from 2013 to 2018, are considered pro-India, although there is not a significant difference between the parties in this regard. With this election, the main focus has been on tourism, with the industry being a major sector of the country. A sector that usually brought in a significant amount of foreign capital, but was hit hard by COVID lockdowns and the country's relatively slow opening of the borders.


Following the election on January 9, the winner will assume the responsibility of rolling out a mega-city project in the country's south. As in December, King Jigme Wangchuck, who still holds considerable power, announced the Gelephu Smartcity Project, a plan to build a 1,000-square-kilometer economic corridor connecting Bhutan and India, highlighting the importance of India to Bhutan, a project we will be keeping a close eye on going forward.

Pakistan - (February 8)


Current/Caretaker Prime Minister: Anwar ul Haq Kakar (Asumed Office 2023)

Current Leading Party: Pakistan Democratic Movement


Pakistan currently stands on the brink of a crucial political inflexion heading into this year's General Election, a critical juncture following the ouster of former Prime Minister Imran Khan in April 2022. This election marks a pivotal moment in a nation grappling with deep-seated political instability and challenges to its governance.


Khan’s tenure, beginning five years ago with his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party breaking the longstanding duopoly of Pakistan's major political parties, ended abruptly a year and a half later amidst a constitutional crisis. Khan, positioning himself and his party as challengers to the entrenched political dynasties and military influence, promised transformative change and an aggressive stance against corruption. However, his governance style soon reflected a familiar pattern of political patronage and control, especially evident in his appointments of military generals to key political roles and his tight grip on media freedoms.


Imran Khan Being Arrested. (Source: The Frontier Post)

As his term progressed, Khan's increasing confrontations with the military, an institution historically influential in Pakistan’s political landscape and known for orchestrating three coups, marked a significant shift for his administration, one that likely led to his eventual ousting.


As when Pakistan's economy experienced a downturn, providing fertile ground for Khan's political adversaries, many of whom had aligned themselves with the military faction,  to initiate a no-confidence vote, resulting in his removal from office.


The aftermath of Khan's dismissal saw him attempting to dissolve parliament and push for early elections, a move that was ultimately blocked by the Supreme Court. This intervention delineated a clear separation between Khan and the established political order.


The following political turbulence in Islamabad, reminiscent of parliamentary chaos, was mirrored by unrest on the streets that bore the hallmarks of a de facto military coup. In response to Khan’s continuous opposition campaign, the state reacted with a heavy hand.


The period witnessed widespread human rights violations, including mass arrests, abductions, and the suppression of journalists, activists, and political figures. This response was then catalysed by soaring inflation rates, which peaked at 38% in May, exacerbating public discontent.


Further complicating the situation, a media blackout effectively censored any mention of Khan, while he faced an onslaught of legal challenges with 180 cases pending against him.

In the political vacuum left by the PTI, the Pakistan Democratic Movement, an alliance comprising the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and the Pakistan Peoples Party, ascended to power. This coalition, working in conjunction with the military and intelligence agencies, enacted legislation enhancing the powers of the ISI and further clamping down on dissent.

The upcoming elections, with Khan's participation barred due to his incarceration, have seemingly paved the way for Nawaz Sharif of the PML, a former prime minister with a history of conflict with the military. This means that Sharif, who was exiled following the Panama Papers scandal, has returned with the military's backing and had his previous convictions annulled.



Protesters in Pakistan (Source: AP)


However, this election may not be so easy to call, as the electoral landscape in Pakistan is marred by allegations of irregularities and scepticism regarding the fairness of the electoral process. The massive rejection of PTI candidates by electoral authorities, particularly in Punjab, underscores these concerns.


Should Sharif secure victory, he will inherit a nation rife with challenges, ranging from economic instability to the threat posed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban. His leadership will need to navigate these complex issues while contending with questions of legitimacy and the ever-present influence of military and intelligence sectors in Pakistan's political arena.



India - (April/May)


Current Prime Minister: Narendra Modi (Assumed Office 2014)

Current Leading Party: Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)


As India gears up for its upcoming elections between April and May, the global media is set to revisit the familiar narrative of “the world’s largest democracy” in action. However, this time, India's status as the world's most populous nation adds a new dimension to this characterisation, underscoring its expanding global influence—a development that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been keen to integrate into his political narrative.


Modi's popularity remains a cornerstone of his party's strength. With an approval rating where 8 out of 10 Indians view him favourably, he stands as potentially the most popular leader globally. Despite challenges such as inflation, peaking at 7.44% in July, Modi's approval ratings have remained robust compared to other global leaders.


This popularity was evident in the recent state elections in early December, where Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) secured victories in three out of four states, only conceding Telangana. This highlighted a notable north-south divide in India regarding the BJP's political approach.


Narendra Modi (Source: DW)

Nearly a decade into Modi's leadership, the BJP's sustained popularity can be attributed to a blend of assertive nationalism, welfare policies, and a focus on India's development and international stature. Initially perceived as a pro-business, urban-centric party, the BJP under Modi has expanded its appeal through various social welfare initiatives, including cash transfers to farmers, subsidies for essential commodities, and a public health insurance scheme targeting the economically weaker sections.


Under Modi's administration, significant developmental strides have been made. For instance, the proportion of rural households with access to a toilet has almost doubled from 40% in 2012 to 79%, and access to tap water has increased significantly. However, Modi's tenure has not been without controversy. The detention of 363 journalists, particularly in the politically sensitive region of Kashmir, points to a complex landscape of governance and freedom of expression under his regime. The revocation of Kashmir's special status remains a contentious issue, reflecting the challenges of managing India's diverse socio-political fabric.


In the face of Modi's robust leadership, the opposition faces formidable challenges. The Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A), a coalition of 28 parties including the Indian National Congress and several regional players, aims to dethrone the BJP. However, the only opposition figure with national recognition comparable to Modi is Rahul Gandhi, who, despite a 62% approval rating, faces legal hurdles that could impede his candidacy.


Gandhi, bearing the legacy of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, has previously led the Congress to defeat and now confronts a potential legal disqualification over defamation charges, which the Congress alleges are politically motivated.


As India approaches its elections, the opposition's task of surmounting Modi's towering popularity and cohesive party narrative seems particularly daunting. The electoral battle will not just be a test of political strategies but will also reflect the evolving dynamics of India's democratic process, societal aspirations, and the complex interplay of regional and national politics.



Sri Lanka - (Before September)


Current President: Ranil Wickremesinghe (Assumed Office 2022)

Current Leading Party: Sri Lanka People's Freedom Alliance (SLPFA)


In 2022, Sri Lanka emerged as a stark illustration of the global economic crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, further aggravated by the Russo-Ukrainian War's impact on developing countries. The country's internal dynamics, coupled with these external pressures, have shaped its current political and economic landscape. The Aragalaya protest movement, which captured global attention, subsided after meeting its immediate objectives. However, the underlying revolutionary fervour remains a potent force, potentially influencing the upcoming electoral processes.


Sri Lanka's vulnerability in early 2022 was exacerbated by a combination of fiscal policies, including excessive government spending, tax reductions, and a hasty transition to organic agriculture. These factors, amid the global economic downturn, led to widespread hardships. The country faced frequent power outages, long queues for fuel, and school closures, as the government grappled with funding basic services.


Public discontent predominantly targeted the Rajapaksa family, long-standing influential figures in Sri Lanka's political sphere. The escalating protests and deteriorating economic conditions culminated in the resignations of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa. While their departure marked a significant political shift, it was merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of Sri Lanka's challenges.



Anti-Government Protests in Sri Lanka (Source: AFP)


Ranil Wickremesinghe's ascent to the presidency, backed by pro-Rajapaksa factions, signalled a new phase in the country's political trajectory. Wickremesinghe's initial response to the protesters, whom he labelled as "fascists", and his subsequent crackdown, indicated a departure from the transformative aspirations of the Aragalaya movement.


Nevertheless, Wickremesinghe has steered Sri Lanka towards a degree of economic stabilisation. His administration's policies, including interest rate hikes, tax increases, and central bank reforms, have contributed to a semblance of economic recovery. The streets have calmed, fuel queues have diminished, and hospitals are operational. However, the impact of inflation continues to burden the nation's poorest, evidenced by the strikes of nearly 40 trade unions in March.


In an effort to bolster the economy, Wickremesinghe secured a US$3 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), contingent upon stringent austerity measures. While essential goods have become more accessible, the reduction in subsidies has left many Sri Lankans struggling financially.


Looking ahead to the presidential election, current polls indicate strong support for Anura Kumara Dissanayaka, a Marxist-Leninist and leader of the leftist National People's Power group. Dissanayaka's growing popularity reflects a shift in the political sentiment among the electorate.


Wickremesinghe, intent on running for president, faces the challenge of distancing himself from the Rajapaksa legacy, which remains unpopular among many Sri Lankans. His association with the previous regime poses a significant hurdle in gaining the public's trust and support.


As Sri Lanka navigates its complex political and economic landscape, the upcoming presidential election will be pivotal in determining the country's future course. The electorate's choice will reflect not only their immediate concerns but also their aspirations for a more stable and prosperous Sri Lanka.


As 2024 ushers in a wave of elections across South Asia, the outcomes in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka will be pivotal in shaping the regional and global geopolitical landscape. These elections, transcending ordinary democratic exercises, are critical events in a complex geopolitical chess game involving significant military power and nuclear capabilities. The decisions made at the polls will directly impact nearly two billion people, influencing regional security, military postures, and global dynamics, having the potential to redefine the strategic balance in this key region.


 

Jamie Thannoo is an acclaimed journalist and The Red Line's Media Director, with specialist knowlegde in South-Asian politics and the contempary elections.


 

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