Regime trends in South Asia

Freedom House and Polity are well-known measures of a country’s regime type (though see Ben Ansell for very important caveats). A newer initiative is the V-Dem Institute, which aims to transparently and rigorously examine various facets of democracy rather than set on a single “correct” way of thinking about the variation across regimes. For an introduction and application to the contemporary world, see their Democracy Report 2020. I particularly like that V-Dem provides easy ways to graph and compare different variables within and across countries; I also appreciate that they try to represent uncertainty (the confidence interval shadings around the lines below – wider means more uncertain). For a discussion of methods, look here (in other words, before getting angry that your country is being unfairly maligned, check out why it is getting scored in the ways it is).

Below are the Liberal Democracy Index scores of set of South Asian countries, from 1947-2019. The basic story is of the decline and then (perhaps short-lived) revival of Sri Lankan liberal democracy, a long period of Indian exceptionalism that has notably declined over the last decade, the democratization of Nepal, and consistently low levels of liberal democracy (though with variation) in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Pakistan has experienced large-scale military influence even when the army did not directly rule, and Bangladeshi democracy has been undermined by both military rule and competitive authoritarianism, despite formal elections.

By comparison, here are the same countries’ Electoral Democracy Index scores, which is one part of the Liberal Democracy Index but excludes the components centered on individual liberty/equality before the law and judicial and legislative constraints on executives. Many of the trends are similar, but we can see how a focus on elections alone helps out Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan relative to their liberal democracy scores, and somewhat attenuates Indian exceptionalism during the 1980-2010 period. If just look at elections, matters are much more muddled than if we bring in key characteristics commonly associated with liberal democracy.

I discussed some of these dynamics in this Foreign Affairs article last year, and 2019 seems to have largely borne its basic claims out: elections occur, and are definitely meaningful and important, but the broader infrastructure of limits on state power and equal application of the rule of law remains quite weak in much of the subcontinent. In Pakistan, the military’s deep ongoing influence is impossible to ignore. In India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, we see a combination of dominant, majoritarian (in the broad sense) political parties and politicized state apparatuses. This is a matter of pride for some in the region, who herald a new era of strong states, “tough” measures to maintain sovereignty, and resurgent nationalism. For those less excited about what accompanies this trend, there is plenty of cause for concern despite ongoing elections. Regardless of your views, V-Dem’s data and visualization tools are well worth checking out.

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