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Indian election only one of at least four important elections in Asia

April 11, 2014 02:40 IST

Indonesia, Turkey and Afghanistan also see important polls in the seven short weeks between end-March and mid-May, says Shankar Acharya

For us Indians, one election has dominated our mind space over the past few months and will do so for the next two. It is the general election to select the members of the 16th Lok Sabha, which kicked off on Monday, April 7, and will continue in nine phases till May 12, with vote counting on May 16.

Such preoccupation is entirely understandable, for many reasons. For starters, it is the "largest collective democratic act in history" so far, as The Economist put it. It is also likely to be a decisive poll in several ways to which I will revert later. In this column, I want to broaden the perspective to note that the Indian election, critically important though it is, is only one of at least four important elections in Asia occurring in the seven short weeks between end-March and mid-May. The other three could also have significant consequences for the future of Asia and merit our attention.

These are the recent municipal elections in Turkey held on March 30; the presidential election in Afghanistan, which began on April 5; and the legislative election in Indonesia on April 9. A few words on each.

Turkey's municipal elections on March 30, in which nearly 90 per cent of the 53 million electorate voted, came at a critical juncture in the country's recent history. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have ruled Turkey with strong parliamentary majorities won in three successive elections since 2002 (then 2007 and 2011). During this period, Erdogan has presided over a rapidly growing economy -- coupled, until recently, with substantial social and legislative reform. By 2012 Turkey had become a significant regional power, often cited as an exemplar of moderate, democratic, modernising Islam, especially for the autocratic regimes of North Africa and West Asia.

In the past couple of years, the bright sheen of the "Turkish model" has dimmed. Economic growth slowed sharply as external and internal imbalances grew. The rift between cosmopolitan, Westernised Turkey (centred around Istanbul and the west coast) and the AKP's Anatolia hinterland widened, and Erdogan's earlier alliance with the Gulenists (followers of the Pennsylvania-based Sunni cleric Fethullah Gulen) fell apart.

Popular protests, like those in Istanbul's Taksim Square last summer, mounted in tandem with growing revelations of corruption and malfeasance in government, leading to resignations of key ministers. The Erdogan government responded with large-scale transfers of allegedly Gulenist judges, prosecutors and police officers and clamped down on the media, including social media.

Against this turbulent background, Erdogan made the March 30 municipal elections a vote of confidence in his leadership. His gamble paid off. The AKP won the majority of cities and towns, including Istanbul and Ankara, and notched up a 45 per cent vote share compared to 28 per cent for the Kemalist, secular Republican Party and 18 per cent for the Nationalist Action Party. Moreover, the AKP's vote share reflected a marked increase over its 39 per cent share in the 2009 municipal elections.

Ironically, this victory in the democratic contest could strengthen the government's increasingly authoritarian approach. Mr Erdogan's victory speech promised an unrelenting battle against the Gulenists. The economy remains troubled, with the lira having depreciated by a quarter in the past year. Erdogan is likely to seek the presidency in the August elections and the AKP may continue to rule Turkey. But unity and inclusiveness look elusive at present, probably weakening the earlier appeal of the "Turkish model" to both investors and political players.

Nearer to home, on April 5, Afghanistan held its first presidential election in which the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, did not figure as a candidate. Despite widespread threats and numerous pre-election attacks by Taliban groups, the actual polling seems to have gone remarkably well in most areas of the country, with the exception of the south and southeast, where Taliban presence is strong. For the country as a whole, preliminary estimates put the turnout at around 60 per cent of the 12 million eligible resident voters -- which is surprisingly high, given the serious hazards to safety and the closure of about a seventh of the polling booths, mostly in the south and southeast.

Early reports suggest the two leading candidates are former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a Pashtun, with Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek, as his vice-presidential running mate; and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik, with Mohammed Mohaqeq, a Hazara, as his running mate. Mr Abdullah had run against Karzai in 2009, but dropped out alleging large-scale voter fraud. Both candidates have publicly expressed their opposition to a complete pull-out of US forces in 2014 (the "zero option" favoured by Karzai) and both have accused Pakistan of aiding the Taliban.

Preliminary results are expected to be announced by the last week of April and final results by mid-May. Counting is complicated by the eligibility of a very sizable diaspora of Afghans overseas. If no candidate wins at least 50 per cent of the votes cast, then a run-off poll has to be conducted around end-May. This is a likely outcome, suggesting that the possibilities for destabilisation by Taliban forces in the intervening period or on the second polling day remain high. Still, so far so good.

On April 9, the fourth most populous nation in the world, Indonesia, with about 250 million inhabitants dwelling in about 900 islands, goes to the polls. The key here is performance in the lower House, since nomination for the presidential election, due in July, requires that the nominee's party should win either a minimum of 20 per cent of the seats in the DPR or at least 25 per cent of the popular vote in the legislative elections. The presidential election is falling due because the second and final term of the current incumbent, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is due to end. According to opinion polls, the current front runner in the DPR stakes is the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which, until recently, was headed by Sukarno's daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri. Last month she stepped aside and anointed the popular governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo (nicknamed Jokowi), as the PDI-P's candidate for president. According to opinion polls, he is the front runner both for securing the most seats in the DPR for his party and for winning the presidential election in July. Assuming this happens, the difference this will make to the current domestic and foreign policies of the largest member nation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is not at all clear. Time will no doubt tell.

Back to India and the greatest electoral show of them all. According to the most recent opinion polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi, is likely to win over 200 seats and the pre-poll alliance of the National Democratic Alliance may win around 240 seats, bringing the magic figure of 272 well within sight through post-poll alliances.

Meanwhile, the Congress may struggle to get a hundred seats. If anything like this happens, it would constitute a resounding victory for the BJP and a rout of the Congress. It would also likely spell the effective end of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has ruled independent India for over two-thirds of its existence. These are pretty decisive outcomes for a general election. Let's see what actually happens!

Image: Voters display their election identity cards outside a polling booth in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh

Photographs: Reuters   

Shankar Acharya
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