After the dynastic rule of Begum Zia during her 2001-2006 tenure and army backed ‘civilian’ caretaker government, the general election of 2008 which brought Awami League under Sheikh Hasina back to power was a watershed in the political history of Bangladesh. Observers assumed that Sheikh Hasina and her party would be re-elected in the election of 2001 as the track record during her 1996-2001 rule was above satisfactory by any standard but the election of 2001 proved otherwise. In a country like Bangladesh the election chemistry is complicated and concluding anything in advance is very difficult as the parameters that decide the outcome of any election are difficult to forecast.
In 1991 Awami League lost the election to BNP. Most of the new generation Awami League leaders and policy makers failed to understand how to plan and conduct a competitive national election. In 1991 election, it was even difficult for BNP to find sufficient number of candidates to nominate in 300 constituencies but in the end it was they who won the election. BNP was clever enough to enter into an unannounced covert election alliance with Jamaat and other Islamist parties.The 1991-96 rule of Begum Zia the nation saw stagnation of national life in all fronts of Bangladesh, from economy to social developments. Because of her inexperience in running a government, Begum Zia became too much dependent on the civil bureaucracy and that virtually ruined her political career and inept party leaders. Her tenure was fraught with misrule, corruption and emergence of a new class of corrupt civil-military bureaucracy, politicians and social parasites. Power was the only thing that mattered to Begum Zia and her cohorts and good governance went into hibernation.
The election of 1996 was also not an easy sailing for Awami League. The BNP-Jamaat alliance proved to be a tough contestant. Finally Awami League managed to form the government forging an alliance with JP and JSD in the parliament. The forming of the government in 1996 by Bangladesh Awami League put Bangladesh on the road to development in all sectors. During the previous government of Begum Zia, the most neglected sectors included agriculture, education, energy, infrastructure, IT, communication and governance. For five consecutive years during Begum Zia’s rule, Bangladesh was ranked for five consecutive years as the most corrupt country in the world by Berlin based Transparency International.
Many international agencies and bodies usually publish annual performance report cards of selected countries. These agencies include United Nation, UNDP (HDI), World Bank (WB), Asian Development Bank (ADB), International Republican Institute (IRI), Transparency International (TI), Foreign Policy Magazine, Forbes Magazine, Global Hunger Index etc. Every time Awami League and Sheikh Hasina are in power all these international bodies and agencies showed that the progress in most of the sectors in Bangladesh is doing better than it did last year. Since the election of 2008, Awami League has been in power for three successive terms with Sheikh Hasina as the Prime Minister. During last eleven years Bangladesh has managed to shed its Least Development Country (LDC) brand and have already begun to climb the ladders for becoming a middle income country by 2021, the year Bangladesh celebrates its 50 years of independence.
In keeping with the tradition, World Bank and the IRI have recently released the progress report cards of many countries including Bangladesh and, as expected, Bangladesh has performed better than last year though still there are holes that need to be plugged. The results announced by both the international bodies were in most cases identical and so were the holes that need to be immediately plugged failing which all the performance records may just fade out. The World Bank published its ‘Global Economic Prospects’ early this month. It predicted that the global economic growth will slow down and to stop the slide countries will have to make policy changes in different key sectors, the human development being one of them. Regarding Bangladesh, the World Bank report said Bangladesh’s export showed signs of softening in recent months, after a substantial increase in exports to major trade partners in the last fiscal year. The WB document also projected that the ‘growth in Bangladesh is projected to remain above 7 percent throughout the forecast horizon (2020-21). A solid macroeconomic framework, political stability, implementation of planned public infrastructure projects, and ongoing reforms to improve the business environment underlie this projection’.
One of the concerns the WB mentioned was the low labour productivity amongst the workers in South and South East Asia but appreciated the improvement in the labour productivity in Bangladesh. It wrote ‘in Bangladesh post-crisis productivity growth benefited from improved macroeconomic and political stability which supported both public and private fixed investment. As a result, productivity growth in Bangladesh was robust during 2013-18 at 5.1 percent, slightly above the pre-crisis average of 4.7 percent.’ But WB report also emphasized that the productivity scenario in the three major countries of the South Asia Region (SAR) Pakistan, India and Bangladesh is still lower and steps must be immediately taken to develop the work skills of the young work age population of these countries.
Coming on the heels of the World Bank Report was the National Survey of Bangladesh Public Opinion prepared by the International Republican Institute, an independent Washington DC based think-tank. The survey was conducted by IRI’s Centre for insights in Survey Research with a local research partner under the supervision of Redstone Scientific between August 1, 2019 and September 16, 2019. The sample consisted of 4,993 respondents aged 18 and older, and was taken from eight divisions of Bangladesh. 76 percent of those surveyed said that the country under the present government is heading towards the right direction which in the corresponding last year was recorded at 62 percent. Interestingly when the current government began its third successive term under Sheikh Hasina only 35 percent of the people had a positive opinion about the government’s performance in immediately a year later it jumped to 56 percent. Since then the support for the present government never fell below 50 percent and the latest result was all time high. 88 percent of the people say that the country is heading towards the right direction and feels that the reason for this achievement is the overall development, better economy and public security. In 2018 this figure was 85 percent. Of the people surveyed 15 percent said that the country headed towards wrong direction and the major reasons cited by them for their negative opinion is (a) low agriculture prices; (b) more corruption; (c) commodity price increases; (d) lack of jobs; (e) bad personal financial institution; (f) lack of law and order.Asked about the future of prospects of in maintaining political stability 43 percent said it will improve for better while 54 percent opined that the economy will become stronger and 49 percent said the security issue will certainly improve. Both the World Bank and the IRI expressed their concern about the increasing disparity between the rich and poor. Finally the issue of the corruption made it to the top of the table amongst the reasons why Bangladesh cannot perform better than now. Along with corruption drugs, unemployment and education made it to the top. All these issues are directly related to good governance.
When asked whether the respondents wanted to see new political parties in future elections or are satisfied with current choices, 66 percent answered that they are satisfied with the current choices and 21 percent wanted to see new political parties in the future election. In survey of May 2018, it was 59 percent satisfaction for the current choice and 16 percent wanted change. From 16 percent to 21 shift was mostly due to the change in the ‘don’t know/refused to answer’ sector in the previous survey.
Looking at the results of World Bank and IRI reports, the ruling party in no way should prepare a comfort zone for themselves and wait for some future disasters to happen like it did in 1991 and 2001. Two things, one inter wined with the other, must be given top priority to keep up the momentum of the positive outcomes of all the international surveys regarding the performance of the current government. The first is ensuring good governance in all spheres of our national life and institutions and second closely related with it is to putting a cap on the epidemic of corruption. It seems corruption has become synonymous with public servants, a section of bureaucracy and businessman. Frequently incidents are cited in the national press how these social parasites siphon away public money in millions out of the country, the destination being countries like Canada, UK, USA, Dubai, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia. The reported figures of money being constantly siphoned outside the county are staggering and its impact in the local economy is just disastrous. To ensure an efficient and effective government right and honest persons must be placed in the right place. This is one thing the Father of the Nation gave top priority and this was a time when finding the right person was not easy. Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the Father of the Nation, tries her best to pick the right person but unfortunately those she entrust and put in charge of key positions often fail her, sometimes for personal gains. What is painful is to see she sometimes is kept in the dark about some key issues and is often misguided that leads to taking wrong decisions. Another thing that needs to be addressed is why should micro management of every details of the government be left to the Prime Minister? It just simply means the people in charge of making important decisions lack confidence and competence. Such people should be immediately replaced by competent persons who can independently take pro-people decisions. Because Sheikh Hasina is heading the government for three consecutive terms, a group of self-seeking sycophants have emerged in around the Prime Minister and they can be more dangerous and damaging than any opposition party or people. The nation is stepping into ‘Mujib Barsho’ on 17 March next. Everyone expects that the performance of the current government will outperform all the performance of the previous years.
The writer is an analyst and commentator