By the middle of 2014, every country in South Asia will have held elections in the last year. In 2014 alone, nearly 900 million voters will be able to head to the polls in the region. Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, and Pakistan all completed national elections in 2013, while Sri Lanka held important provincial elections, including in its contested Northern Province. And in the next seven months, voters in Afghanistan, India, and Bangladesh will all select their next governments.
2014 will be an especially noteworthy year for South Asia as it navigates not only these elections, each of which is complicated by unique domestic challenges, but also the drawdown of U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan. The outcomes of these events will have ramifications for stability in the region and around the world.
A Pivotal Year for Afghanistan
Afghanistan will see two critical transitions in 2014: a national election and the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces. These two events are deeply intertwined. The election will affect the withdrawal process and color the U.S. legacy, especially since Afghan President Hamid Karzai seems to be demanding that Washington grant him a free hand to manage the elections as a precondition for signing a status of forces agreement that would allow a residual U.S. force to remain after the withdrawal.
Questions remain as to whether Afghanistan’s elections will achieve even their most basic function—selecting a legitimate executive authority. Yet even if they fall short, there is no doubt that they will be regarded as a landmark in the country’s democratic transition process by an international community impatient to exit the Afghan morass. The stakes are considerable. Kabul needs a reasonably functional and legitimate government to handle the day-to-day management of the country and ensure the cohesion of Afghanistan as a whole and the Afghan National Security Forces in particular. Even a functional political system will not guarantee stability, but a dysfunctional and illegitimate one will send the country into chaos, annihilating some of the real (though hardly sufficient) development successes achieved in Afghanistan over the past twelve years.
Nine candidates will compete in the electoral race. Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission disqualified sixteen others, a decision that has caused controversy because all nine of the remaining contenders have been part of the government at some point during the past twelve years. This has led critics to allege that Karzai is manipulating the system to designate his own successor, calling into question the legitimacy of the election even before it is held.
And Karzai’s current behavior with regard to the status of forces agreement with the United States lends further credence to these allegations. After months of painful negotiations, Karzai is refusing to sign the agreement unless Washington satisfies new demands he formulated after the final text was drafted. The content of these demands matters much less than the fact that Karzai can now reinforce his nationalist credentials by appearing to stand up to the Americans. This show of force bolsters his position vis-à-vis the Taliban and increases his capacity to influence the election, which could prove disastrous for Afghanistan if U.S. and international troops leave the country entirely.
But Karzai is not the only one to blame. The current situation is the consequence of early U.S. mistakes. Since 2001, U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has focused only on security and governance, ignoring the importance of politics and giving little consideration to the need to create and sustain national cohesion. As a result, Afghan political institutions were created in a way that reflected Washington’s desire for expediency but did not necessarily ensure the political system’s sustainability. Today, this system is hostage to a president who constitutionally cannot be reelected but whose concentrated powers make him a de facto kingmaker.
The 2014 election could exacerbate America’s own contradictions and mistakes in Afghanistan. It could also lead to a security vacuum and must therefore be dealt with carefully.
Change and Continuity in India
While it is extremely difficult to predict the outcome of India’s national elections, slated for April and May 2014, Indian voters are likely to usher a new ruling coalition into New Delhi. Speaking of “national elections” in the Indian context is somewhat misleading, however, because elections are actually an aggregate of 543 constituency-level contests across 28 states and seven union territories. Decentralized federalism means that India’s states are the primary venues for political contestation, so voters, even when participating in national elections, are often influenced by state and local personalities and performance.
Since 2004, the United Progressive Alliance, led by the Indian National Congress, has governed India. Ten years of uneven performance, compounded by slowing economic growth, persistent inflation, and a spate of high-profile corruption scandals, have badly weakened the Congress Party. Polls indicate that the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, is gaining momentum as elections near. Indeed, the BJP was the greatest beneficiary in four recent state elections in India. BJP governments in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh were reelected, and the BJP ousted the incumbent Congress Party in Rajasthan and emerged as the single largest party in the state of Delhi (although it fell short of an outright majority).
In 2014, some outcomes seem certain: the BJP will gain seats in parliament, and the Congress Party will lose a significant number of them. But what role India’s myriad regional parties will play remains unknown. A loose grouping of regional parties—commonly called the “third front”—led coalition governments in New Delhi in the mid-1990s, and its members are vital coalition partners for any future government. And if the BJP and the Congress Party both underperform, there is always the possibility of a repeat third-front government. In this context, the meteoric rise of the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi should give pause to both major national parties.
Many investors and experts believe that a change in government in 2014 is exactly what India needs to lift it out of its economic doldrums and get it back on a high-growth trajectory. In particular, there is a great deal of optimism about a BJP election victory, thanks in part to Modi’s pro-business credentials as well as the reformist track record of the last BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government, which governed India between 1999 and 2004. Yet this optimism may prove to be excessive for two reasons. First, there are no quick fixes for India’s current economic woes. Whatever low-hanging fruit existed by way of “stroke of the pen” reforms has largely been plucked. Only deep institutional reform that governs the relationship between the state and private capital and reinforces adherence to the rule of law will allow India to regain its sustained high-growth footing.
Second, it is still an open question whether the BJP, if it were to come to power, would enact the right-of-center economic policies that Modi has championed in Gujarat and that characterized the last National Democratic Alliance regime or whether it would follow the muddled path it has plowed while in opposition. For the last ten years, the BJP has openly flouted many of the market reforms it once eagerly pushed, instead clamoring for the same kind of protectionism and signing on to many of the same “populist” spending measures it accuses the current United Progressive Alliance government of engaging in.
At the same time, those who assume that neither a BJP nor a Congress-led government will come to pass are perhaps excessively pessimistic about the prospects of a government led by regional parties. They envision an unwieldy coalition in New Delhi led by a gaggle of regional actors and supported externally by one or the other national party. It is true that such a coalition may be prone to greater instability, as was the case in the mid-1990s, and therefore not conducive to enacting sweeping new reforms. But historically, governments of this sort have not proved inimical to economic growth, thanks largely to structural forces that compel compromise and consensus.
Regardless of which parties form the next government, India’s foreign policy will privilege continuity over change. Pragmatism will dictate New Delhi’s relations with regional and international powers.
Over the past decade, there has been a sea change in relations between India and the United States, with the two forming growing security, diplomatic, and economic ties that have been bipartisan on both sides of the Atlantic. There are certainly irritants in the relationship—India is bothered by what it perceives as the halting nature of Washington’s “pivot” to Asia, and the United States is troubled by India’s unwillingness to further open its markets and by other recent protectionist impulses in New Delhi. In addition, Washington has kept Modi at arm’s length since his controversial handling of the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat. But the broad thrust of the U.S.-India partnership is unlikely to change, even if a Modi-led BJP comes to power. The two countries would likely adopt a pragmatic approach, with the United States directly engaging Modi and the economic and security interests of both sides compelling a modus vivendi.
Pragmatism would also likely prevail with regard to India’s other major foreign policy issues—namely, China and Pakistan. BJP leaders have hinted that they would adopt a more conservative approach to Beijing and Islamabad, taking a harder line against both thorns in India’s side, but one should not read too much into the hawkish rhetoric. It was, after all, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government that worked intensely to normalize relations with Pakistan in the early part of the last decade (although perceptions of Pakistan within the BJP today may be less propitious than they were a decade ago). And Modi has actively courted Chinese investment in Gujarat, traveling to Beijing even against the wishes of some of his party’s leaders. In addition, growing economic ties between the two large Asian powers and India’s continuing economic slowdown would likely constrain any considerable hardening of India’s stance vis-à-vis China.
Bangladesh’s Familiar Struggles
Bangladesh seems to be returning to its old demons. Unlike the 2008 national elections, which international observers described as the fairest in Bangladeshi history, the January 2014 national vote will take place in a context of a deep political crisis and a climate of political violence. Hundreds have allegedly been killed in clashes between rival political factions since the beginning of 2013.
For years, the rivalry between the center-right Bangladesh National Party (BNP), chaired by opposition leader Khaleda Zia, and the center-left Awami League, chaired by incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has held the democratic process hostage. Since 1991, these two parties have participated fully in only four polls. All other elections were affected by either military intervention or boycott.
Although it holds an advantage in opinion polls, the opposition BNP has already announced that it will boycott the January election. It argues that the timing of the contest and the incumbent government’s refusal to step down and allow a neutral caretaker administration to oversee the polls, a process previously enshrined in Bangladesh’s constitution as a guarantee against electoral fraud, will bias the election’s results. As a result, whatever the outcome of the elections, a substantial part of the population will likely regard them with skepticism.
But for all the country’s problems with weak infrastructure and endemic corruption, Bangladesh’s economy is in relatively good shape. The GDP growth rate was 6.1 percent in 2012, and socioeconomic conditions appear to be improving. According to some analysts, Bangladesh is on track to reach a number of key UN Millennium Development Goals by 2015. As a result, economic issues are unlikely to be a deciding factor in next year’s elections.
This also means that the Awami League cannot blame economic factors for the fact that it has recently lost popularity. Two other issues are likely behind this shift. First is the Awami League’s 2011 decision to abolish the need to create a caretaker government by overturning the constitutional requirement that general elections be overseen by a nonpartisan regime. This reopened the issue of fairness and transparency at a time when the prevailing sense was that the problems associated with elections in Bangladesh had been addressed. Second, the BNP cried foul when a tribunal set up in 2009 sentenced to death several leaders of an Islamist party and today a major ally of the BNP—Jamaat-e-Islami—who were accused of having committed atrocities during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.
In reality, Jamaat-e-Islami did oppose Bangladeshi independence and participate in the bloodshed associated with the war. But the Awami League’s repressive actions, including its practice of arresting human rights activists, have lent credibility to the accusation that it is to blame for derailing the country’s democratic process. As a result, the public has slowly turned against the government. And the BNP, which suffered a crushing defeat in 2008, has regained its strength.
At stake in 2014 is no less than the political stability of—and the future of democracy in—Bangladesh. Should the country fall into chaos, the military could intervene. But should the BNP ultimately decide to participate, the outcome of the election could also have consequences for the regional political balance. As prime minister, Hasina has considerably improved relations with New Delhi by confronting terrorism, cracking down on extremist organizations, and preventing northeastern Indian separatist movements from operating on Bangladeshi territory. It is unlikely that Zia would deliberately try to reverse this policy should the BNP come to power, but her party’s support for Jamaat-e-Islami would make it more difficult for her to resist the pressures of more radical organizations.
Zia, traditionally closer to China, could also be tempted to shift slightly toward China and grant Beijing the use of Bangladeshi air bases and coastal access in Bangladesh. This move would inevitably alienate New Delhi. As suggested by the International Crisis Group in a recent report, Bangladesh in 2014 could well be slipping into familiar patterns and heading “back to the future.”
Voting for Change
2014 will be a year of transitions in South Asia. All these changes are taking place within the political framework of democratic elections, which is certainly an encouraging sign for the region’s democratic future. Yet it would be a mistake to infer that the strength (or fragility) of democratic institutions is constant across the region. India is a firmly consolidated democracy—albeit one not without its blemishes—while the credibility of Afghanistan’s nascent democracy is widely questioned. Bangladesh falls somewhere in between: widely lauded 2008 elections placed Bangladeshi democracy on a firmer footing, but old political battles threaten to derail its forward progress.
The transitions occurring across South Asia will have ramifications for regional stability and international security. Elections in Afghanistan and Bangladesh have the potential to exacerbate internal divisions that could lead to violence and have serious cross-border impacts. Even in the comparatively stable Indian democracy, elections have often been a focal point for violence by extremist elements and ethnically motivated partisans. While India’s internal tensions are not likely to spread outward, they do speak to a larger reality about the region: in 2014, very little in South Asia can be taken for granted.