Thursday 5 July 2012

Defining Democracy in South and Central Asia

Jack Barton

Kyrgyzstan’s elections last year resulted in the first peaceful transition of power since independence, though there were clashes in June this year. Vladimir Pirogov / Reuters. 
Democracy is hailed among the highest of Western values; one that occupies our politicians’ speeches, their lawmaking and their foreign diplomacy.  It is an ideal with the political weight to justify almost any form of foreign policy – whether creating economic ties with ‘democratic’ countries or undermining the governments of ‘autocratic’ ones.  These labels are handy when it comes to public relations but news stories can emerge at any moment to confuse the picture – for anyone who is looking.
In South and Central Asian countries these convenient labels are applied as much as anywhere; it is particularly easy for Western governments as this region tends not to cause widely-publicised moral dilemmas – unlike the Middle East or China.
To illustrate the sliding definition of democracy, a good place to start is India.  In a previous piece I discussed the mega-corporations, the military, the old political families and the resurgent groups in Kashmir and the central forests – all of whom undermine the claim of the Indian government to rule.  Despite these factions, the government itself is democratic, the country threw off its imperial shackles and built a democracy which has created burgeoning economic growth.  But it does not take much to question this picture.  A rough estimate of the 2009 election showed that only 58% of eligible voters cast their ballot.  This is actually logistically quite impressive considering 72.2% of the population live in remote rural areas and 22% live below the poverty line (including 93 million slum dwellers – 50% of New Delhi, 60% of Mumbai).  On the other hand it means that 42% of Indian people of voting age have no political voice and it is these who are suffering; they are being dispossessed by huge industrial schemes such as the creation of power plants, steel factories and vast toxic dumps, they are the ones working in mines in illegal conditions and they are the ones struggling with completely insufficient healthcare – watching their children die or grow up malnourished.  The Indian Government can do what it wants because, other than open insurrection, these people have no voice, and by ignoring the rights of these people, the government deprives them of any chance to find one.
Many Western Governments would put their relationship with India near the top of their list of Asian priorities, some depict it as a ‘shining example’ of democracy for the developing world, while others simply ignore the masses of disillusioned and disenfranchised, and their lack of basic rights.
But it is unfair to put India in a Western context only, it must be compared to its neighbours.  Traditionally, Pakistan has earned itself an image as a dysfunctional and violent failing state but here at least all the signs suggest that the state of democracy is improving, with greater adherence to the country’s constitution and a strong democratic opposition keeping the government relatively on track.  Voter turnout in 2008 was estimated at 45%, even lower than India but at least here there appears to be genuine development.  Of course I must refer to what I said earlier; Pakistan’s increasing usefulness may have led the West to nurture this improved image, but it is hard to argue with the steady increase in voter turnout and it will take a long time before Pakistan is seen on a par with India, simply because its divisions and instabilities have come under much more recent global scrutiny.
A discussion of the governments of any part of the World is important yet often ignored for political convenience.  Aung San Suu Kyi’s tour of Europe has done little to draw greater attention to events in Burma but they are widely reviled and draw condemnation on neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh which rejects Rohingya refugees, and China which pushes the Kochin back into the conflict zone.  Sri Lanka has suffered 3 decades of civil war and some parts live under military control with 10 soldiers for every civilian.
When we consider the governments of South and Central Asia in their own context it is easy to see how India was described as a ‘shining example’ of a democratic developing nation.  One thing that must make us pause though is that the origin of that quote is Tony Blair and all other political, moral and recent historical considerations aside, he is a man who last year sold his services to repaint the face of another Central Asian government: Kazakhstan.  This state shoots strikers, burns the offices of opposition leaders and kills their leaders, but as far as their government, Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, Jonathon Powell and other Portland Communications associates are concerned, it is all a question of PR.
You cannot group any region’s governments together but as far as current foreign policy in South and Central Asia is concerned, the definition of democracy is a flexible one and one that can be applied where convenient.  This type of short-termist labelling may not be unexpected but the inevitable result is hypocritical and immoral relationships, embarrassing backtracking and simply messy foreign policy which in the long run does more harm than good.

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