Earlier this month, I wrote about how Bangladesh’s long-ruling Awami League won a significant election “victory,” dominating the vote and taking most of the parliamentary seats. However, most independent observers did not consider the vote free or fair. In recent years, Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League have jailed, harassed, and otherwise intimidated nearly all forms of opposition, including the leading rival political party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The BNP boycotted the election, claiming it would not be free and fair, which it was not. Sheikh Hasina has firmly established herself as another one of South and Southeast Asia’s elected autocrats. The region, which experienced a more democratic period in the 1990s and 2000s, has since regressed. Now, it has become dominated by outright autocracies, hybrid regimes, and flawed democracies, with very few exceptions like tiny Timor-Leste.
Bangladesh is hardly alone in holding highly flawed elections. While Thailand’s election last year was deemed free and fair on election day, the party that won the most votes, Move Forward, was prevented from forming a government. This obstruction was driven by unelected senators appointed by the military after a coup in 2014. The constitution, drafted by the military, established this unelected senate to prevent any party posing a significant challenge to the royalist-military establishment from assuming power. Instead, a coalition government was formed without Move Forward, which is now in opposition in parliament and is being harassed judicially on various fronts.
As I noted in a new CFR In Brief, the upcoming elections in Indonesia, the most populous and influential state in Southeast Asia, will certainly be free and fair on election day. Yet, they will also mark the culmination of years of democratic regression in what was once the shining example of democracy in the region. Despite assuming office as a supposed reformer, President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, has established a family dynasty through unseemly maneuvering and overseen backsliding on rights and freedoms. He has also nurtured the possibility that his defense minister, Prabowo Subianto, who historically offered contempt for rights and democracy, will be the country’s next president. Prabowo leads the polls by a large margin and could rule as a strongman in office.
India, the regional giant, will hold elections in the coming months. Again, a country once ranked as a full democracy by rating agencies like Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit has regressed into a flawed or partly free democracy. Although the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has undertaken many genuinely popular policies, it has also sparked communal division and overseen intense intimidation of the media, civil society, and critics in general. Overall, the government has used a range of tactics to make it challenging for the admittedly weak opposition parties to have any chance in general elections. The BJP will almost certainly dominate the upcoming polls—partly legitimately since it enjoys broad support in the Indian north and because the opposition has been impeded by a deterioration of democratic norms in all respects.
In early February, Pakistan, never a strong democracy—no elected prime minister has ever served a full five-year term—holds elections. But again, despite a history of raucous, if sometimes violent, electioneering, the campaign leading up to February’s elections has been relatively quiet. That is partly because, like in these other countries, democratic norms have continued to deteriorate in Pakistan. Imran Khan, the popular former prime minister—probably the most popular politician in the country—who dared challenge the army, is in jail. Khan is not allowed to run in the election, a situation he blames on the ever-powerful Pakistani military, which, like its Thai and Myanmar peers, views itself as the country’s central institution.
Khan’s party has been denied the right to use its symbol, a cricket bat, on election ballots. As Al Jazeera has noted, candidates associated with the party must run as individuals using distinct symbols. This significantly diminishes their prospects, especially considering Khan’s connection to the cricket bat (as a renowned cricketer) and the prevalent illiteracy in Pakistan, where symbols play a crucial role for voters during elections. The other big parties, which have also faced pressure, have only begun to finalize their slate of candidates even though the election is in a matter of weeks. Most reporting suggests much less interest in the election than in past campaigns—just as the military probably wants it.