With pivotal elections in 2023 or scheduled in 2024, several South Asian nations find themselves at a crucial juncture. The preparation and outcomes of these elections carry significant implications, not only in shaping the destinies of the respective countries but also in influencing the broader dynamics of the South Asian region and the global landscape at large.
During 2023, the pre-election implications in some of these countries became clear — repressive laws were passed to muzzle free speech or silence critics and leaders and members of the opposition parties have been arrested or judicially harassed. We will discuss some of the stories we covered in 2023 from this region.
In the September 2023 presidential elections in the Maldives, Mohamed Muizzu, the former Mayor of Malé, secured victory in a second-round run-off, defeating the incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party. The result has significant implications for Maldives’ foreign policy and the geopolitical balance in this region.
Under President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom's leadership from 2013 to 2018, the Maldives shifted closer to China, distancing itself from India, a long-standing ally. There was a significant Chinese investment in the country, which also racked up a huge national debt. When President Solih assumed power after winning the 2018 elections, he adopted an “India first” policy to restore ties with India while maintaining relations with China.
However, since 2020, the opposition coalition of Yameen's Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the People's National Congress (PNC) initiated an “India Out” campaign asking for the withdrawal of Indian troops from the country, challenging the bilateral relationship. The online version of the campaign reportedly harmed public perception of the bilateral relationship between India and the Maldives.
Mohamed Muizzu, a candidate of the People's National Congress (PNC) and endorsed by Yameen's Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), became victorious in the second runoff on September 30, 2023, banking on this issue, among others. On November 17, 2023, the first day of his office, Muizzu formally requested the Indian Government withdraw its troops stationed in the Maldives, which is a setback to India’s efforts to “counter China’s influence” in the country. The Muizzu government has also opted not to renew a 2019 Memorandum of Understanding with India from conducting hydrographic surveys around the Maldives, an agreement disfavourable to China.
Bangladesh is bracing for its own general elections on January 7, 2024, to elect 300 members for its 12th Jatiya Sangshad (National Parliament). The incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's party Awami League (AL), is expected to win this election for the consecutive fourth term, given that the major political parties, including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), are boycotting the election.
The country has a history of politicisation of the bureaucracy by ruling parties. According to a 2022 research by David Jackman & Mathilde Maitrot published in The Journal of Development Studies, the country's police force is often politicised and is usually directed against the opposition. Human Rights groups have long protested against the brutal crackdown against the opposition by the ruling party. Multiple instances of internet shutdowns occurred in 2022 and 2023, which were used to disrupt opposition rallies.
Before the closing of the 24th session of the 11th Bangladesh Parliament on September 14, 2023, the parliament hurriedly passed the new Cyber Security Act 2023 (CSA). The law is essentially a rebranded version of its predecessor, the draconian Digital Security Act of 2018, which was used as a weapon to suppress critical voices.
The US is pressuring Bangladesh to hold free and fair elections and has threatened to impose visa restrictions on those involved in undermining the democratic process. Russia was quick to accuse the US of orchestrating events to destabilise the nation through opposition protests resembling the Arab Spring. Hasina and her Awami League still have the backing of two crucial powers, the neighbour India and China, which has invested heavily in the country’s infrastructures in the past decade.
The next Pakistani general election is scheduled to be held on February 8, 2024, to elect the members of the 16th National Assembly. The country is currently being run under a caretaker government following the dissolution of its parliament on August 9, 2023. Prior to dissolution, the Shehbaz Sharif government hastily passed dozens of bills that curtailed civil liberties, suppressed public voices and criticism, and enhanced the authority of the military.
Earlier this year, the Shehbaz Sharif government initiated a crackdown against Imran Khan, the former prime minister of Pakistan and the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, while he was demanding early elections. Widespread protests destabilised the country in May 2023 when Khan was arrested on corruption charges.
The protests eventually escalated into riots in Lahore. Subsequently, the Supreme Court of Pakistan declared Khan’s arrest as illegal. However, the government responded by invoking the Army Act and Official Secrets Act to persecute the protestors in military court.
Imran Khan was arrested again on August 5, 2023, as the Islamabad High Court (IHC) found him guilty of corrupt practices. Former Prime Minister Khan was removed from office in April 2022 through a no-confidence motion in the parliament as he lost the majority. In August 2023, the Islamabad High Court ordered his release by suspending his trial, but he remained locked up on several other charges.
While Khan is still on trial for leaking state secrets, it is unlikely that he will be released before February 2024 to contest the election. There are concerns about whether the caretaker government and the Election Commission of Pakistan are capable of holding fair elections. The country has a history of censoring social media platforms and attempts to suppress the voting rights of minorities.
The next general elections in India are expected to be held between April and May 2024, when members of the 18th Lok Sabha will be elected. With a weakened opposition and strong performance in the recently concluded State elections, The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to win the 2024 parliamentary elections, enabling Prime Minister Narendra Modi to rule for the third term.
In March 2023, Rahul Gandhi, the former leader of the opposition Indian National Congress (INC), lost his Parliament membership after being convicted of defamation. In August 2023, India’s supreme court suspended his two-year jail sentence, allowing him to come back as an MP and to run in the upcoming election.
In July 2023, a political alliance of 28 political parties in India led by the INC was formed which was named The Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A). The primary objective of the alliance is to defeat the ruling National Democratic Alliance government led by the BJP. The opposition parties have accused the BJP of changing India’s name to “Bharat” to subvert the alliance.
India is constantly pushing itself to replace China as the leader of the Global South and assert its geopolitical agenda in South Asia. In January 2023, The Modi government waged a war against the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) over its broadcast of a two-part documentary titled “India: The Modi Question”. The documentary aimed to highlight the rising violence against the Muslim minority population in India under Modi. There were also some protests against the rearranged constituencies in the Assam state of North-eastern India.
The next Sri Lankan Presidential election and parliamentary election will be held in 2024, and the dates have not been finalised. The government’s proposed new Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) will provide security forces the power to detain individuals without warrants and will give sweeping powers to the President, police, and military to arbitrarily ban protests and gatherings.
Sri Lanka experienced a severe economic and political crisis in 2021 and 2022. In July 2022, then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) was forced to resign amidst widespread anti-government protests. President Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party was voted by the parliament as Rajapaksa's replacement.
SLPP still holds a clear majority in the parliament, and it may be a strong opponent of Wickremesinghe in the upcoming elections. A November 2023 survey shows the popularity of a number of opposition candidates much higher than Wickremesinghe or SLPP.