Whither Democracy? Perspectives from South Asia

CIPE Insight | Aarya Nijat

Aarya Nijat in Conversation with Akash Shrestha, Dr. Ali Riaz, Dr. Nishan De Mel & Dr. Vaqar Ahmed.

Expert responses are almost verbatim, edited only for continuity, length and flow.

President Biden is convening a virtual Summit for Democracy on December 9-10.

This will be the first of two summits that bring together leaders from more than 100 countries to collectively think and reflect on the global state of democracy and threats faced by it, put together an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal, and willingly take responsibility and make commitments for action during the 12 months between the two summits. The summit presents an opportunity for the United States to exercise real leadership in developing a global democracy strategy.

To take this important conversation on democracy to the countries that are on the receiving end of American democracy assistance, proactively reach out to and engage with audiences in South Asia, and attempt at fulfilling the promise of listening to regional perspectives on democracy, the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) collaborated with Tritiyo Matra (Third Dimension), Bangladesh’s most popular political talk show hosted by Zillur Rahman. The collaboration resulted in a series of four TV talk shows, each focusing on one of the Summit themes, defending against authoritarianism, advancing respect for human rights, and addressing and fighting corruption. The fourth show presents South Asian perspectives on democracy featured leaders in democracy program implementation from Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

This article, building upon the discussions of the above four talk shows, articulates South Asian perspectives on the future of democracy in the region by reflecting on five key questions. These are 1) the challenged state of democracy in the region, 2) the relation between South Asian democracy and the global trend of democratic backsliding, 3) opportunities for reversing this trend of democratic decline, 4) the role of South Asian countries in spurring or supporting a global democratic renewal and 5) South Asian expectations of American leadership in support of democratic renewal worldwide.

1. On the challenged state of democracy in South Asia

Akash Shrestha, Research Manager Samriddhi Foundation – Nepal: The state of democracy is dwindling in Nepal. All state institutions meant to protect and promote democracy are in disarray. The federal parliament is caught up in party politics and constant disruptions. In the house, sessions cannot deliver efficient legislation and thus fail to meet expectations. The federal executive spent months in a stalemate with political parties bargaining for cabinet positions. With ordinances introduced and repealed on a whim by the ruling government, the political environment is in shambles. Sadly, sub-national governance is equally affected. At the provincial level, Chief Ministers are either handing over their resignations or being challenged in the provincial assembly floor tests, signifying that the federal loggerheads have permeated provincial politics. The third branch of the government, the judiciary, has been in a state of deadlock due to confrontation between the justices and the Chief Justice after news the Chief Justice was negotiating with the ruling government for key portfolios surfaced. This controversy is laying bare the politicization of the judiciary and is raises questions about its integrity.

Toxic party politics and the political leadership’s absolute lack of empathy for challenges faced by the people due to the raging COVID pandemic and the effects of climate change are exposing the severity of the weak state of public service services. At a higher level, the recent political mayhem in Nepal conveys the impression that Nepal’s democratic institutions are treading the path of Kleptocracy. Nepal is a young democracy. Its institutions of democracy are yet to mature and thus are more vulnerable to the growing wave of populism, authoritarianism, and polarization in and around the region. Weak national and subnational governance paired with the subsequent failure to provide essential services to the public resulted in Nepal citizenry questioning the idea of democracy as the only system that can deliver.

Ali Riaz, Distinguished Professor and Author – Bangladesh: Bangladesh has witnessed a serious erosion of democracy in the past decade and a half. Two consecutive rigged elections in 2014 and 2018, the adoption of legal measures to restrict freedom of expression, increasing incidences of extrajudicial killings, and allegations of infringement on the judiciary are indicative of the trend of democratic backsliding. Through legal and extralegal measures, the government and the ruling party supporters have decimated the once vibrant civil society space in Bangladesh. The backsliding originates from the removal of the constitutional provision of holding a parliamentary election under a non-party caretaker government in 2011. The provision incorporated in the constitution in 1996 ensured several fair elections until 2008. However, after coming to power in 2009, the Awami League removed the provision, thus paving the way for manipulating elections held under the partisan government. Moreover, the civil administration and law enforcement agencies have been politicized, blurring the line between the state, the government, and the incumbent political party. Executive aggrandizement has concentrated power in the hands of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The government has engaged in the persecution of opposition by filing frivolous cases against leaders and activists. Since the introduction of the Digital Security Act (DSA) in October 2018, the draconian law has become the tool of choice to silence government critics. The result is the prosecution of hundreds of outspoken activists on social media.

Dr. Nishan De Mel, Executive Director Verité Research – Sri Lanka: The region, particularly India and Sri Lanka, has a proud history of democratic resilience through regular elections and consistent peaceful transitions of power. The institution of elections has thus remained an overwhelming source of legitimacy for wielding political power. However, Sri Lankan voters have also experienced a long series of betrayals. Except for some steps taken to curtail the powers of the presidency through institutional checks and balances, such as the 19th amendment to the Constitution under President Sirisena, none of the Presidents who won on their promise to abolish the over-powerful presidential system or at least reduce the powers of the president (in the case of the 2010 elections) delivered on their promise. On the contrary, elected in 2010, President Mahinda Rajapaksa enhanced presidential powers instead of reducing them. Nevertheless, the electorate clawed back by dismissing him from his post in 2015, only for President Sirisena to also fail to keep the promise of dismantling the presidency. The disappointment with the 2015-19 Sirisena government led to a comprehensive and historic reversal in voter sentiment, leading to the success of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who campaigned to increase the powers of the presidency. The year 2019 marks the first elections where the majority electorate endorsed an election campaign that explicitly promoted a model of semi-authoritarian leadership. A similar appeal has been developed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who too has a “strongman” image.

This reversal in voter endorsements might be signaling a deeper disillusionment with democracy in Sri Lanka, which is briefly explored along the following three dimensions of (i) agency and dignity, (ii) fairness and justice, and (iii) economic mobility.

(i) Agency and Dignity: A colonial and feudal past does not easily foster a culture that is conducive to the values of democracy. In the case of Sri Lanka, it has shaped experiences lacking in political agency and social dignity by giving birth to a democratic system that maintained colonial/feudal trappings in government and society – with a bureaucracy that acted as masters rather than servants of the public. Therefore, in the post-colonial trajectory, the style of democracy, as manifested by the bureaucratic and political elites, did not offer much democratic agency beyond casting a vote or much social dignity to those outside of the colonially instituted social hierarchies. As a result, the few who wield power within the system can seem entirely unresponsive to the many who do not, particularly religious and ethnic minorities – unless and until threatened by protests or violent uprising, a common feature in Sri Lankan politics.

(ii) Fairness and Justice: In Sri Lanka, the public experiences the increasing manifestations of unchecked corruption, nepotism, and abuse of power by elected officials as a betrayal of the democratic expectations of justice and fairness. The concern for mitigating corruption has greater social resonance in Sri Lanka than the concern for checking the abuse of executive power. The deep resonance of these issues in Sri Lanka and India is reflected in the portrayal of governing authorities (mainly police and politicians) in television dramas and films. Popular art, narrating social sentiments, portrays elected and appointed government authorities as mostly corrupt, abusive, and unjust, hence holding out little hope for engaging the government through reasoned discussion or the principles of fairness. Given the region’s democratic history and a lack of imagination of a democratic system outside the post-colonial experience in Sri Lanka or South Asia, the experience itself, more than the philosophical concept, shapes the understanding of the system. When the democratic system continues to deny citizens agency, dignity, justice, and fairness, it is gradually de-legitimized and perceived as unjust, despite the lack of an agreed or proven better alternative. Therefore, this creates an ideological vacuum, leading to an appeal for Marxist and communist movements long after their retreat in the rest of the world.

(iii) Economic mobility: The material improvements in the economic aspects of life can help tide over a lot of ills. In Singapore, for example, citizens tend to see the lack of certain democratic freedoms as an acceptable trade-off for the very substantial material economic improvements that have occurred over a short period. While Sri Lanka has also seen significant economic growth over an extended timeframe, the perception that the corporate sector hijacks the democratic decision-making apparatus and the centralization of the benefits of economic growth in the corporate sector instead of public services, such as education and health, have resulted in significant discontent. The de-professionalization of the public service sector, resulting in its continued deterioration, is one of the major impediments to the successful manifestation of inclusive economic outcomes, including the agricultural sector. Agriculture suffers from a very low productivity level, evident by its less than one-twelfth contribution to Sri Lanka’s GDP despite employing one quarter of the population.

The disillusionment with democracy comes from a continuous cycle of attempts to sustain hope in democracy with commitments to democratic reforms, which have been frustrated when these fail to deliver in central areas of people’s lives. When deeply problematic, substantive issues are not resolved over a long period of time, despite repeated regime changes, the system loses its legitimacy. These dynamics have resulted in social disillusionment and an erosion of trust in the democratic system in Sri Lanka. When there is a loss of trust in what the democratic system is said to represent by way of agency and dignity, justice and fairness, and economic progress, the public begins to see semi-authoritarian leaders as figures that can possibly restore these outcomes by over-turning the “system.” Therefore, popular support for such leaders might be stronger in contexts where there is disillusionment with the “system” itself – for which there are substantial reasons even within the “best kept” democracies of South Asia.

Dr. Vaqar Ahmed, Joint Executive Director Sustainable Development Policy Institute – Pakistan: The pace of transition towards a transparent democratic system remains slow in Pakistan. The civil-military turf war has been less of a concern with the PTI government, which has enjoyed relatively better relations with the establishment compared to the other mainstream parties. However, with the exit of NATO forces from the region and in particular Afghanistan, the establishment is once again contending for greater space in matters of foreign policy and internal security. Often, this leads to frictions with civil government and the judiciary. Political parties’ lack of a democratic and inclusive internal hierarchy is another challenge. Most political parties are family-centric clans, thus opportunities for average political workers remain limited. The political parties rarely see transitions in their top leadership, so a stagnation in leadership corrodes Pakistani political parties from within. The lack of power distribution to sub-provincial administrative domains runs against the spirit of the 18th Constitutional Amendment.

2. On the relation between South Asian democracy and the global trend of democratic backsliding

Akash: At the regional level, we are witnessing two trends of democratic backsliding, each worthy of examination and analysis on its own. On the one hand, authoritarian states are growing their sphere of influence using their financial resources and manufacturing powerhouses. On the other, democratic states, expected to counter authoritarian regimes, are themselves held hostage by politics of populism. Either way, democracy is eroding in the region and that is a grave matter of concern for the defenders of democracy. Populism, polarization and rising authoritarianism are serious challenges. What happens in South Asia affects a third of the global population. South Asia and the world face a major threat. This is the threat of the global trend of democratic backsliding becoming the new normal. And we cannot afford to take this for granted. Although history teaches us that politics runs in spiral cycles, and there is potential to witness trigger points at different points in time, we cannot predict the nature of the next set of trigger points and the subsequent orientation that they may push us towards.

Ali: The current global trend of erosion of democracy began in 2006. According to Freedom House, today more people live under systems that are either “not free” or “partly free.” During this period a new system of governance has also emerged in many countries. Called “hybrid regimes,” these combine both democratic and authoritarian traits. In South Asia, given its civil-military dynamics and the military’s upper-hand, Pakistan has long been an example of a hybrid regime. India, the South Asian “beacon of democracy,” has witnessed a significant decline in civil liberties and political rights under the Narendra Modi government, descending to serve as an example of “electoral autocracy.” In Sri Lanka, not only majoritarianism has triumphed but also a Rajapaksa dynasty has been created. The rise of populist leaders – from Europe to the United States to Asia – has become a defining feature of the present era; personalized authoritarianism is on the rise. Bangladesh’s recent political developments follow this pattern. The legislature has become the tool of the executive branch instead of being the instrument of checks and balances, and judiciary’s independence has been questioned. Absence and weakening of accountability mechanisms, both vertical (that is elections) and horizontal (that is constitutional bodies such as anti-corruption commission, civil society organizations), have accelerated the process of democratic backsliding.

Nishan: There are several trends in global backsliding of democracy with manifestations in Sri Lanka and South Asia. One current poignant trend in Sri Lanka and India is the hegemonistic instrumentalization of social-polarization in electoral competition.

In democracies with a two-party system, there is an expectation that the positions of the two main political parties would converge to the “middle.” Simple game theory models can demonstrate that the “middle” is an equilibrium where each party would tend to achieve its maximum electoral appeal relative to its main competitor. In the last two decades especially, western democracies have seen this expectation being gradually undermined. One relevant observation is that the deterioration of social relations, alongside a toxic turn in popular media, has led to increasing identity politics and social polarization that have been instrumentalized in electoral campaigns. Sometimes the disequilibrium is triggered by the emergence of smaller political parties that take away votes at the margins, thereby reducing the mainstream appeal. An underlying dynamic is that the “middle” can leave large numbers of people feeling under-represented, and this becomes more acute as society becomes more polarized.

The emergence of right-wing political parties in Europe triggered by reactions to increasing immigration and dilution of the comfortable and homogenous social composition might be be an example of this phenomenon. Another example could be the increasing tribalization of the Republican and Democrat electoral base in the United States – fueled by an increasingly tribalistic tilt in mainstream media. When vaccine-resistance (in relation to Covid-19) can be predicted based on political party affiliation (as it would be in the United States), it suggests that the tribalization of politics and media might be at too high a level. If democracy is government by conversation, the failure of democracy can be linked to the failure of the public conversation. When the assumption of democratic social discourse fails, winning elections based on dividing people, rather than uniting them, becomes a possibility.

Vaqar: The global trend of democratic backsliding is a dangerous trend for two reasons. First, commitments made by the democratic leaders in the developed world, for instance towards climate change or multilateral trading systems, remain unfulfilled and are deprioritized with the election of leaders who appeal to the populist agenda, pursue nationalism and consequently strengthen right-wing politics. Second and partly inspired by the above, leaders in the developing world follow suit and, in a bid to continue to hold on to political office, centralize power, replicate undemocratic trends and suppress democratic voices. The South Asia region has seen a crackdown on civil society voices in a manner that is unprecedented.

3. On opportunities for reversing this trend of democratic decline

Akash: Although due to weak service delivery the people in Nepal are on the brink, their faith in democracy appears to be high. According to a survey conducted by Nepali Times earlier in 2021, 75% of the respondents believed that democracy is by far the best system of governance for Nepal, despite the fact that only 31% of Nepalis are satisfied with the federal government’s performance, 60% do not trust their political leaders, 76% feel none of the current political parties reflect their interests, and 44% believe Nepal is moving in the wrong direction. So, people’s faith in democracy can serve as an anchor. We witness an increase in grassroots participation in sub national discourse on democracy, rights and services. Driven by their unmet needs, people at the provincial and local level are becoming increasingly active. The Provincial Government Accountability Teams (PGATs) program that Samriddhi and CIPE jointly implement is creating a new development discourse at the local level. But this is not enough. At the end of the day however, the democratic system of governance in place must generate economic development and deliver tangible results. So, economic development must be treated as a priority. The space for civic activism must be protected and fostered at all costs. This is both an internal cause for the private sector and civil society in Nepal, but also an area of intervention for the international community.

The states that are representing or promoting authoritarianism are also the ones that are investing in large-scale infrastructure projects. This is quite a pattern to watch, also because of the visibility of the output of large-scale infrastructure projects. Such projects have a direct impact on people’s lives and one can be seen on a day-to-day basis. Such projects, for example roads, bridges or railway tracks, live on for generations, and reflect the aspirations of the citizens of a country. In contrast to this is investments in political institution building that goes unnoticed or remains invisible for the most part. Take the example of investment in writing a new constitution or legislative or policy reforms. Perhaps one way to address and help reverse this tide is strike a balance between investments in large-scale infrastructure projects and political institution building, all in the service of creating added visibility and direct impact on people’s lives, though this is easier said than done. One such attempt, through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) faces massive political resistance in Nepal and across the region, even though it carries the benefit of a grant, not a loan, to build the much-needed power infrastructure in the country. And the key to changing this dynamic enhancing access to information about all foreign investments so people can make confident and informed choices.

Ali: There is no silver bullet, no cookie cutter solution to this problem. However, reversing the course is not only necessary but possible. At the regional level, citizens for democracy can facilitate information sharing on the state of democracy, particularly to members of the international community, and provide mutual support. The international community and multilateral organizations need to play a more active role in using their leverage to influence the incumbents in various countries. South Asian countries including Bangladesh should work closely with multilateral organizations and play a more regionally informed and active role in international forums. Western countries have a robust bilateral relationship with Bangladesh in terms of trade, investment, infrastructural development, and security cooperation. In the pandemic era these relationships have strengthened as Bangladesh needed support for economic recovery. It is necessary to consider whether such cooperation is enabling an unaccountable system of governance and bolstering an authoritarian system. In the case of Bangladesh, tactically speaking, one of the reforms that can help reverse the democratic backsliding is the re-establishment of a system of free, fair, inclusive, and transparent elections. A more strategic step would involve the reinvigoration of the civil society space and removal of the limitations imposed on the freedom of expressions. In the face of this adverse situation, Bangladeshis continue to yearn for democracy and opposition parties and members of civil society have been trying to build resistance to this growing authoritarianism.

Nishan: Often, those attempting to support democracy in other parts of the world focus on the procedural aspects of democracy: regular elections and institutions that can create checks and balances. But there is a more serious issue at stake, and it has to do with the substantive aspect of democracy that guarantees representation of constituent interests by elected officials and institutions, rather than having those hijacked by the elite.

In South Asia, procedurally democratic structures have been adapted to function not too differently from procedurally authoritarian structures. A case in point is the very powerful office of the president created in Sri Lanka in 1977 along with a new liberal constitution that was celebrated as an advancement of democracy. This has led to the democratically elected office of the president being seen as an authoritarian structure that the country is not able to change, despite regular elections and peaceful transitions of power. When society is repeatedly disillusioned with the way in which the promise of democratic institutions plays out and deliver in practice, it provides fertile ground for electing a “strong man,” which is what we recognize as a tilt to authoritarianism. Procedurally democratic structures that fail to deliver substantial results through democratic institutions, can, despite elections, result in instituting a form of feudal order where problems are solved through patrimonial relationships with those who wield political power.

The focus on procedural aspects of democracy results in a misdiagnosis of the problem, as a technical “weakness” of institutions, leading to an emphasis on continued investment in institutions. But unfortunately, the problem is not institutions per se, but the way the institutions function. At a deeper level, the problem is the way institutions are instrumentalized in this structure, as not simply legal and governance structures, but creatures of tradition and culture. The success of institutions depends on the values of the human beings that animate those institutions and the educational systems and cultural context that help shape those values over time. There is thus a need for an adaptive approach to problem diagnosis that takes stock of people’s values and loyalties, as opposed to a simplistic technical approach that merely focuses on the procedural aspects of democratic institutions and their functioning.

This is not to say that South Asian cultures do not have elements of democracy ingrained in them. All cultures have these values embedded in them. Nelson Mandela, for instance, describes how the African tribal lifestyle has deeply democratic values embedded in it. In the case of South Asia, Amartya Sen in his book “The Argumentative Indian” discusses traditions of debate and coming together with deeply pluralistic instincts embedded in Indian history and culture. Therefore, the path to improving democracy may lie more in the patient long term investment in restoring valuable aspects of education and the culture of people rather than the quick fixes in terms of shoring up institutions.

Vaqar: Our approach for reversing this trend of democratic decline is three pronged. First is to support business voices and interest of the median group of the population. These are usually small and medium enterprises that provide livelihoods to a considerable percentage of the labor force in South Asia. A more economically independent population could better demand rights and entitlements. Second is to encourage these enterprises to engage in cross-border trade and investment value chains that in turn can strengthen economic interdependencies. And last is to work with media professionals to carve out an urgent and compelling case for deeper forms of democracy to take root. Our approach goes beyond just electoral reforms but also focuses on facilitating the decentralization of administrative and financial power to elected bodies at the national, provincial, and local levels.

4. On the role of South Asian countries in spurring or supporting a global democratic renewal

Akash: This is a humbling question for a country like Nepal. As a young democracy, the case of Nepal’s experimentation with democracy could offer valuable lessons for other emerging democracies.

Ali: Considering the state of democracy in Bangladesh, the most important role it can play is to lead by example and work towards reversing its course and creating an inclusive system of governance. Such efforts will galvanize others in the region and demonstrate that backsliding is not irreversible, and that a calculated assessment of incentive mechanisms can help redefine concepts such as “political will” of the political elite in the service of democratic renewal.

Nishan: South Asia can be a useful case study for the world. Polarization-driven democratic backsliding is a global phenomenon today, but with a vivid history in South Asia. Studying the discursive contexts and media dynamics in which democracy has played out in South Asia may provide valuable insights, particularly on the issue of hegemonic instrumentalization of social polarization in electoral politics in Sri Lanka.

Globally we might need to recognize a set of new challenges that emerge for democracy in less homogenous or ideologically united societies. Europe, for instance, is dealing with this challenge triggered by the back-to-back waves of immigration and pluralism. As societies become more diverse but are not yet ready for necessary adaptation to create stability amid the newly found diversity, systems of governance fail in handling the diversity in a way that effectively manages the emergence of polarities or enmities. These dynamics test democracy in historically unprecedented or unfamiliar ways and lead to disappointment or disillusionment, as well as a fertile ground for instrumentalizing social polarization for political gains. In South Asia, there are examples, specifically in India’s Hindu majoritarianism and in Sri Lanka’s (Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism) where voting outcomes reflect hegemonic majoritarianism trends quite vividly.

Democracy is a government by conversation. Media plays a central role in this conversation. Any opportunity and hope for reversing the democratic backsliding is tied to societies’ ability to have a conversation and listen to each other with empathy. Yet media also plays a crucial role in social polarization as we have seen in South Asia. If we can’t reform or restore the nature of the conversation, we will find it very difficult to rescue democracy. A renewal of the culture of media, including the role that big tech as global corporate vanguards and moderators of this conversation play an essential in reversing the trend of democratic backsliding.

Vaqar: Pakistan must take a more active role at the global governance forums. The country’s relevance, owing to the exit of NATO forces from the region and the subsequent increase in the responsibility that it shoulders, has increased. One of the ways in which Pakistan can make its role and global messaging more effective, such as at the G-8 or G-20 meetings, is by restoring democracy in its true form at National and sub-national levels.

5. On South Asian expectations of American leadership in support of global democratic renewal

Akash: Nepal may appear a small South Asian country sandwiched between India and China, but in terms of population it bears significance in the region. Nepal makes an even bigger federal democratic republic. We thus expect that the United States, as a global leader in democracy, will deal with us as an independent republic, and not through the lens of India. The American experience and expertise in democracy assistance throughout the world can help strengthen Nepal’s new federal and subnational institutions, particularly in the area of public financial management and accountability, as well as protect and sustain the civic space for civil society and a level playing field for the private sector, particularly micro, small and medium enterprises. Along the same lines but at the regional level, United States can help create platforms for knowledge and experience sharing between South Asian countries and between South Asia and the rest of the Asia and Pacific region. Given that there are no short cuts to democratization, and that promoting and protecting democracy should be a continuous and long-term process, it is vital to invest in building youth leadership capacity by creating consistent opportunities for learning.

Ali: The expectations of the Bangladeshis are three-fold. They expect that the USA will support democratic countries around the world instead of being close to authoritarian rulers. It is commonly perceived that the US is not making optimum use of its soft power. There is a high expectation that US policies towards Muslim majority countries will be judicious and just. But the most important expectation is that US administration will be cognizant of the ongoing decline of democracy in Bangladesh and vigorously act to   reverse the course, support the democratic elements within the country, and stand by the civil society. There is a strong perception that the US views Bangladesh through the prism of India, which also shapes its role. Considering the recent decline of democracy in India and its unqualified support to the incumbent Awami League, it is expected that this approach will be revisited. In recent years, China has made significant inroads to Bangladesh, which warrants US attention. But such attention should not be as a part of its India-centric policy but to Bangladesh as a country which has geopolitical and geostrategic importance in the Asia-Pacific region. Democratic decline in Bangladesh has implications well beyond the borders of the country.

Nishan: The best thing that powerful countries can do for global democracy is to live it more attractively internally. The soft power of societies that negotiate their differences constructively while entertaining social diversity can promote the values of democracy better than hard power. Powerful countries therefore should lead by example. To shore up support for democracy globally, it must also be practiced externally by powerful nations. Sri Lanka’s resistance of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, for instance, is driven by a perception that global institutions may not be sufficiently democratic, fair or inclusive, particularly when it comes to global challenges of climate change or nuclear proliferation. And that these global institutions may give into pressures from powerful nations that result in compromising their role to becoming tools for selective application of rules by the powerful. The way in which global institutions and their governance is perceived must inspire hope and undermine cynicism in the globally championed values of democracy. To expect that technical legal or institutional reforms can fix the state of democracy is to lack depth of understanding of the complexity of the challenge we are facing. Shaping human support and imagination towards democracy is a deeper challenge than what a limited institutional and procedural reforms might be able to fix.

Vaqar: We have three specific expectations from the American leadership in support of global democratic renewal. First is the promotion of livelihoods in a manner that encourages competition and market efficiency in developing countries. USAID scaled back its efforts in this area several years ago and many countries have seen the space for the free market shrink as a result. Second is the need to link financial support to developing countries to timebound reforms that strengthen transparency of institutions and electoral systems, thus facilitating and enabling the space for a more inclusive social mobility. And last is the need for a conscious effort to support and strengthen the thought community in the developing countries, specifically focused on supporting the academia, policy think tanks and business associations.

Aarya Nijat manages CIPE’s programs in South Asia

Akash Shrestha is Research Manager at Samriddhi Foundation in Nepal

Dr. Ali Riaz is a Bangladeshi-American author and policy analyst, a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council and Distinguished Professor at the Illinois State University

Dr. Nishan De Mel is the Executive Director of Verité Research in Sri Lanka

Dr. Vaqar Ahmed is the Joint Executive Director of Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Pakistan

Acknowledgements: The author thanks Asia Program Associates Nora Wheelehan and Tasneem Tamanna Binte Amin for their support.

Published Date: December 03, 2021