South Asia's Lessons for the Middle East and North Africa

A failure on the part of regional governments to deliver on their promises, raise living standards, and resist the temptation to impose majority rule on the minority will likely result in the same political apathy and disillusionment that is so prevalent in South Asia.
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Oxford University recently co-published the results of the first authoritative political survey of post-Gaddafi Libya, coinciding with the anniversary of the uprising that overthrew the dictator. Just 5 months after Gaddafi's death, while 69% of the 2,000 Libyans surveyed said they would like to have a say in who rules the country, 35% of them preferred that a strong leader rule the country 5 years from now. Just 29% said they preferred to live in a democracy, and 16% said they were prepared to resort to violence to achieve their political objectives.

Dr. Christoph Sahm, director of co-study producer Oxford Research International, points out that "... the Libyan people have not yet developed trust towards political parties, preferring a return of one-man rule..." and that "... Libyans who have had autocratic rule for decades lack the knowledge of how a democracy works and need more awareness of the alternatives to autocratic government." Dr. Sahm's interpretation of the results appears to be based on a widely-held assumption in the west that the Libyan people -- and people more generally around the globe -- prefer democracy to any other form of government, and that by definition, any other form of government cannot possibly be as desirable as democracy -- in any of the many forms it takes.

Given the state of democracy in the U.S. at the present time -- with the population divided more than ever before between the 'haves' and 'have nots,' with big money overtly dominating the political process, and with legalized corruption having been recently revealed in Congress (and only partially revoked as a result of widespread public pressure) -- it's frankly a wonder why any transitional polity would want to emulate western-style 'democracy.'

Another thought-provoking study, also co-produced by Oxford University and published in 2008, queried South Asians about their views on democracy and related issues. The study notes that there have been many benefits to having made the transition to democracy in the region, but at the same time, the failure of South Asian governments to deliver on many of the promises made to their people has created a climate of distrust, apathy, and disillusionment.

The study holds some important lessons for the Middle East and North Africa, from a region that has become well acquainted with democracy:

  • While there was widespread support for the idea of democracy in South Asia, there was less commitment towards or satisfaction with the institutional form of representative democracy.

  • While South Asian democracy made progress with respect to equality, dignity and human security, there was less emphasis on rules and institutions to guard against excesses by the majority.

  • Constitutions may indeed offer equality of political citizenship, but fall well short of delivering the promise of democracy that most people aspire to.

  • An elaborate set of institutions to provide formal autonomy appears to exist but in practice they suffer from erosion of real autonomy and low levels of public trust.

  • While all the countries have mechanisms for recognizing and accommodating regional and social diversity, the mantra of the homogeneous nation-state and growing 'majority-rules' practices undermines the co-existence of diversity and democracy.

  • Political parties are a firm part of South Asia's political consciousness and generate a high degree of popular participation and identification, but their inability to function in a democratic and transparent manner -- or to provide meaningful choices to voters -- has resulted in a low level of trust.

  • Non-party organizations and social movements have given a voice to the issues and groups ignored by political parties, whose role may have been eclipsed. Yet these organizations also failed to address issues of representation, transparency and accountability.

  • Ordinary people in South Asia are resilient and, despite their challenging political, economic and social conditions, do not show marked feelings of insecurity. However, minorities continue to experience a sense of insecurity, and the democratic state, with its orientation toward majority rules, can be an additional source of insecurity to them.

  • Democracy has transformed the people of South Asia from subjects into citizens, with rights and dignity, which has given rise to expectations that most governments in the region have failed to meet.

The study points out that while 70% of Indians preferred democracy, only 37% of Pakistanis did, and 49% of Pakistanis and 21% of Indians said that it did not matter to them whether their government was democratic or not. In Bangladesh and Pakistan -- which have long histories of military-led governments -- 60% of respondents endorsed military rule. And in India, which has had only civilian governments for the past 60+ years, 23% of respondents approved of army rule.

While part of these results can be attributed to a lack of education or sophistication among rural respondents, the truth is that if South Asian governments had done a better job of improving living standards among the majority of their population, it would not have mattered whether a respondent was rich or poor, educated or ignorant, Muslim or Christian -- they would presumably have stated a clear preference for the type of government that had delivered the goods. Shockingly, even after decades of democracy in the region, two-thirds of respondents yearned for the rule of a "strong leader who does not have to bother about elections." Disillusionment with the democratic process appears to be the overriding commonality among South Asian respondents.

Herein lies the lesson for the Middle East and North Africa. Regardless of how smooth or rocky the path to democracy may be in the future, a failure on the part of regional governments to deliver on their promises, raise living standards, and resist the temptation to impose majority rule on the minority will likely result in the same political apathy and disillusionment that is so prevalent in South Asia. The net result may be a preference for a return to strong man rule, in which case the people of the region will end up asking themselves what the Arab Awakening was all about. Even if the democratically-elected new governments of the region turn out to be successful, the strong men and their backers will continue to lurk in the background -- if they disappear at all. Given the recent political history of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen -- and given the likelihood that the newly elected governments in the region stand a good chance of failing to improve the lives of average citizens in the short and medium-term -- the strong men may soon be back by popular demand.

*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk consulting firm based in Connecticut (USA), and author of the new book Managing Country Risk (

He can be followed on Twitter at:

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