The Future of Democracy in South Asia

Why Citizens Must Stay Vigilant

Supporters of Wickremesinge hold candles during a vigil demanding democracy in Colombo, Sri Lanka, November 2018. Dinuka Liyanawatte / REUTERS

On November 14, a fight broke out in the Sri Lankan Parliament. When the Speaker tried to call a vote, a group of MPs heckled him and rushed the podium. A rival faction tried to push the hecklers back. Men traded punches. One brandished a knife. A lawmaker cut himself trying to steal the Speaker’s microphone and ended up in the hospital.

The chaos was the result of a constitutional crisis that erupted in October, when the country’s president, Maithripala Sirisena, tried to oust the prime minister and replace him with a former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Lawmakers and citizens protested; Sirisena dissolved Parliament, until the Supreme Court ruled this unconstitutional; and Rajapaksa, rejected by Parliament, refused to step aside. The stalemate broke only in December, when Sirisena reinstated the deposed prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the face of concerted opposition from the judiciary and a majority of Parliament. 

Until recently, Sri Lanka, one of Asia’s oldest democracies, seemed safe from this kind of instability. The country’s bloody civil war ended in 2009, and its 2015 election seemed to signal a new phase of liberalization. But democracy’s gains were less secure than they appeared.

Sri Lanka is far from unique in South Asia in this respect. By some measures, the region is more stable and democratic than it has been in decades. Violence and unrest have subsided. Militaries have left the streets and returned to their barracks. Major insurgencies have been contained. As a region, South Asia is experiencing economic growth at an average rate of nearly seven percent each year. Today Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Pakistan—countries governed by hard-line military dictatorships in the recent past—are all, at least formally, democracies.

But this apparent calm masks major sources of disquiet. Ethnic and religious tensions are spiking. Politicians are trying to win votes by attacking independent institutions. And militaries still lurk in the background. South Asia’s experience shows that democracy does not seamlessly advance or uniformly retreat. Empowerment in

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