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Rainbows and emeralds: a month of rising democracies

From the rainbow nation to the emerald on the equator. From the graveyard of empires to the jewel in the crown. The coming month brings a stream of elections covering 1.6 billion people living in key emerging democracies.

A serendipitous season where more than a third of the "free world" go to the polls in succession: Afghanistan today, India on Monday, Indonesia two days later, Algeria on April 17, Iraq on April 30 and South Africa on May 7.

Not only do these democracies account for one-fifth of the world's population, but individually these nations represent the largest in size as well as the most significant regime changes to democracy over the past two decades.

Last week in Brussels, US President Barack Obama gave one of his lofty speeches on democracy. He said the United States and Europe were behind a universal longing for "elections that are free and fair; and independent judiciaries and opposition parties, civil society and uncensored information so that individuals can make their own choices".

His remark was delivered under the dark cloud of the Ukraine crisis. Yet it was probably aimed not at the struggle for liberty in Crimea but at the complexity and accountability of free choice in emerging democracies.

The state of world democracy has neither progressed nor regressed. Its quality, though, is more suspect.

The Economist Intelligence Unit last year said about 36 per cent of the world's population lived under authoritarian regimes, while the rest in some form of a democratic system - be it full, partial or hybrid.

The most "perfect" democracies, according to the Economist report, reside in the West - Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and New Zealand topping the 2013 list.

But its future and viability as a system of governance depends on the "performance" of countries like those that will be counting ballots over the next five weeks. How they vote and ultimately how the democratic mandate is carried out to better people's lives betokens the future of electoral politics for those still living under repressive regimes.

Every election is about change. But in all these six emerging democracies, the theme of restoration versus recreation runs common.

Today's presidential election in Afghanistan ushers an end to Hamid Karzai's 12-year presidency. A peaceful democratic transition in the post-Taleban era will go a long way in the consolidation of this war-torn nation.

The slow wheel of India's giant democracy begins turning on Monday with a month-long process to elect a new Lok Sabha, or lower House.

The battle lines are set between familiar foes. The Congress Party led by a Cambridge-educated scion of India's most powerful dynasty, against the Bharatiya Janata Party led by a Hindu conservative who was previously chief minister of Gujarat.

Then there's Indonesia's April 9 election, effectively a precursor for the July presidential race. An election that is about change. A race between presidential candidates in their 60s, against a local phenom born in the 1960s.

Indonesians can empathise with their election brethren in Algeria. Both countries are the biggest in their respective regions. Both are dependent on natural resources.

And like Indonesia once, it goes to the polls under the shadow of a geriatric 77-year-old president in power 15 years and likely to be reelected with the backing of the National Liberation Front (FLN) party (Suharto was 76 when he was last elected).

The FLN, like the Golkar Party before reformasi, has ruled Algeria for nearly three decades. While there is always hope for new beginnings, many believe Algeria's April 17 election will result in familiar endings.

No country has arguably captured more headlines in the post-9/11 era than Iraq. This wounded democracy elects a new parliament on the last day of April with incumbent Nouri al-Maliki seeking a third term as prime minister.

This will be Iraq's first national election since the pullout of US troops in 2011 - an election that could bring hope for political reconciliation or a further descent into violent division.

South Africa will go to the polls in an auspicious year. It comes two decades after the end of apartheid and will be the first since the death of Nelson Mandela.

The ruling African National Congress will likely win the election, but Mandela's departure will slowly realign South African politics and force the governing party to remodel itself as a party of the future rather than its anti-apartheid past.

Economist William Easterly, in his latest book "The Tyranny of Experts" argues that freedom, not donor aid programmes, will be the catalyst to improving the lives of ordinary citizens.

Freedom and democracy, he argues, are the only reliable paths to economic prosperity with a free flow of ideas leading to innovative experiments and democratic politics.

Hence, this act of choice of emerging democracies over the coming month will reverberate beyond the borders of these six countries.

In the aftermath of the elections, aspiring and wanting democracies will then gauge whether the moral arc of democracy will ultimately veer toward good governance or end when the last vote has been tabulated.


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