2018 was an unusual year in South Asia, with three countries electing new governments and a cricketer and doctor among those taking power. Nicholas Nugent considers the strategic significance of these changes, and the prospect of more electoral upsets in the region
Between mid-2018 to mid-2019 five of the seven South Asian nations have held or are due to hold national elections. Governments in Pakistan, Bhutan and the Maldives have changed and voters are going to the polls in Bangladesh and India. Only in Nepal and Sri Lanka are no elections due.
The most significant poll of the year was in Pakistan, where the country’s former cricket captain Imran Khan came to power at the head of a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI)-led alliance in July, after defeating the country’s two main parties, the Pakistan Muslim League of former premier Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) and the dynastic Pakistan People’s Party led by Bilawal Bhutto.
Observers questioned how independent Khan would be given the army’s endorsement for his candidacy. In the event, this suspicion was overshadowed by bigger concerns about the country’s financial independence, given its heavy indebtedness towards China. When it seemed the United States might block Pakistan’s bid for a$12 billion bailout from the IMF, Khan successfully sought loans from both Saudi Arabia and China and cut back on some of the country’s China-financed infrastructure projects.
He also faced the US administration cutting back on military aid following accusations from President Trump that the country was not doing enough to quell Afghan-related insurgency. Observers believe this newly hostile approach by the US will drive Pakistan ever closer to China.
The next electoral upset came in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Two-stage elections concluded in October led to the ousting from power after five years of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) by the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT). The DNT won 30 National Assembly seats with the remaining 17 going to the Druk Phensum Tshogpa (DPT), which ruled Bhutan from 2008-2013. The country’s new Prime Minister is 50-year old Australia-trained urology surgeon Dr Lotay Tshering.
The demonstrates a healthy state of democracy in this mountain kingdom which will have been ruled by three different parties since absolute rule by the king ended ten years ago. Holding elections in this mountainous land with poor infrastructure was itself a triumph. Some of the 860 polling stations were several days’ walk from a motorable road.
Bhutan is wedged between India and China and there has been speculation that the new government will accelerate the previous administration’s plan to strengthen relations with its northern neighbour. The election came a year after the Doklam incident in which China was found to be building a road across Bhutanese territory, which suggests the country is unlikely to abandon its close friendship as well as economic and defence ties with India.
Smaller than Bhutan in population terms, though just as significant in strategic terms, are the Maldives, where there was a surprise upset at presidential polls in September. Incumbent President Abdulla Yameen was defeated by an ally of former president Mohamed Nasheed, whom Yameen had previously ousted. The victor, Mohamed Solih, leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party, was the choice as candidate of a coalition intent on ousting Yameen and his Progressive Party.
The Maldives is another country battling for democratic legitimacy after years of authoritarian rule. However, the most interesting consequence of the change of president was what was described in the Indian media as ‘a recalibration’ away from China towards India.
President Solih returned from a visit to Delhi with an aid pledge by its large neighbour of $1.4 billion ‘to ease debts’. Like Pakistan, the Maldives had become deeply indebted to China, which provided support for infrastructural projects, including abridge opened in September which connects the island nation’s airport to its capital – part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative(BRI).
The fourth South Asian nation to hold a national election in 2018 is Bangladesh, where polling took place in the closing days of December – before the time of writing. Sheikh Hasina Wajed is seeking re-election for her Awami League, which has been in power for 16 of the last 22 years. With her erstwhile prime ministerial rival Begum Khaleda Zia in prison for corruption and Zia’s son, Tarique Rahman, who now leads the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), facing a life sentence for an election-related grenade attack in 2014 that killed 24, there is every sign that Sheikh Hasina will win a record fourth term in office. She will have been helped by the country’s impressive growth rate in recent years which, in some respects, has overtaken those of both Pakistan and India.
Which leaves us looking ahead to the most significant election of the region, that of India, due by May 2019.Narendra Modi’s BJP hopes to hold onto power captured five years ago and is well placed to do so. A round of state assembly elections just concluded (December) – which Indian media jokingly described as ‘the semi-final’– gave some cheer to the opposition Congress Party which took power from the BJP in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
The polls suggested the plight of farmers, and the effect on them of the BJP’s controversial 2016 demonetisation, will be the main electoral issue rather than the BJP-supported philosophy known as ‘Hindutva’ which espouses Hindu causes over the country’s traditional secularist principles. The elections showed Congress’s relatively youthful leader, Rahul Gandhi, to be a potential prime minister, despite the party’s failure so far to name him as its prime ministerial candidate, should Congress win the election or be in a position to put together a coalition with smaller parties. This is not to understate Narendra Modi’s own personal appeal to voters which is considered a major factor in the BJP’s past successes both nationally and at state level.
Observers of South Asia, including the region’s large northern neighbour, will definitely read signs of a retreat or setback to China’s ambitions from the results in Pakistan and the Maldives. Away from South Asia, a change of leadership in Malaysia has also led to a reappraisal of projects funded by – and the country’s indebtedness towards – China.
Beijing may be hoping to reverse setbacks to its South Asian alliances when elections take place in Sri Lanka. Before then it is India’s turn to vote. India is its own master when it comes to strategic influence in the region and no outside power will be able to claim a gain, whichever side wins.