Saturday, 10 June, 2023

Two Major Challenges for Awami League Government

Capt. Hussain Imam

Two Major Challenges for Awami League Government

The Awami League government under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has to face two major challenges in 2023: One is the prevailing economic crisis and the other is the next general election to be held by the end of 2023 or early 2024.

Bangladesh's economy is in a dire situation. Although the country’s economic index in terms of GDP growth is not that bad in the context of the deteriorating global economy due to the prolonged coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, the vast majority of people with middle income and below, say 120 million out of 170 million, are literarily reeling from the burden of rising inflation and unbearably high cost of living.

The cost of almost every item of their daily necessity – from rice, wheat, pulse, sugar, vegetable oil, fish, meat and vegetables to fuel, transport, electricity, gas, fertilize and health service – has gone up by 50 to 100 per cent in just over a year or so. Though living cost has increased by 50 per cent, their real income has remained static, if not declined. The result is they have to cut back their food intake, spend less on baby food and reduce the education-cost of their children.

International financial institutions like World Bank, IMF or ADB do not foresee a brighter economic prospect for Bangladesh soon even though they have all the praise for Bangladesh’s remarkable infrastructural development and improvement in social indicators like literacy rate, enrolment in primary schools, poverty reduction, life expectancy, infant mortality rate, women empowerment and safety network for the marginalised people.

The worrying part is that export earnings and remittances have declined in recent months. Foreign Exchange Reserve has depleted to USD 30 billion from USD 43 billion in just over a year and Taka has been devalued against the US dollar from Tk. 86 to Tk.107, making imports of essentials and capital machinery, including raw materials for industry, not only costly but also difficult.

The unemployment rate has increased. According to a quarterly labour force survey by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), as of March 2023, 2.59 million people are jobless. It was 2.32 in December 2022. Unofficially, 45 million people are now believed to be jobless in the country. Even if we go by the BBS data, the rise of unemployed people by 2.70 lakh within one quarter is surely alarming. With the increase of unemployed people, the poverty rate has increased.

So, the prime concern for Sheikh Hasina, as the prime minister of the country, remains the same i.e. how to cope with the prevailing economic crisis, how to provide the hapless millions with the bare necessity for survival and how to create jobs for the thousands of unemployed youth.

The second major challenge is the next general election. Almost all the BNP-led opposition parties outside parliament are not willing to contest the election under the incumbent government. They want the election to be held under a nonpartisan caretaker government. The Awami League, the party in power with an absolute majority in the parliament, does not want that. Their argument is, the proposal for a caretaker government is anti-constitution and the Awami League does not want to go beyond the constitutional provisions as far as the election is concerned.

Bangladesh’s main development partners, the USA, the UK, the European Union and Japan in particular, want the next general election in Bangladesh to be free, fair and participatory. They do not want to see repetitions of what happened in 2014 and 2018 in the name of election. They do not want to see a repetition of another Magura-type election either. To put it bluntly, they do not want to see mockery in the name of election and this time they seem to mean it. At the same time, they cannot advocate for a system (caretaker government) that is not in practice even in their own country.

Given the futile exercises that the country had to go through in forming caretaker governments last time that finally led to a military-backed caretaker government and thereafter repealing the provision of a caretaker government system from the constitution (15th amendment) by the Awami League as per the directives of the highest judiciary body, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has every right to stick to her point of not agreeing to the demand of the BNP-led opposition parties for her to step down and hold the

election under an unelected caretaker government. She has every right to stay in power and hold the election as per the constitution of the country and nobody, local or foreign, can or should force her to do otherwise.

However, the people have the constitutional right to a credential election in which they can cast their votes freely and choose their representatives independently and for that matter, the Awami League, as the ruling party, has the constitutional obligation to ensure a free, fair and credentials election. The BNP, one of the two major political parties, has, on the other hand, the responsibility to see that they do not jeopardise the democratic process. However, flawed it might appear to them, by boycotting the election and creating chaos, thereby paving the way for the third party to take over power by the backdoor.

It would be advisable for the BNP-led opposition parties to focus more on empowering the Election Commission so that it can exercise its constitutional obligation to conduct a free and fair election without interference from the party in power than trying in vain to realise their demand for a caretaker government which is anti-constitution. They might, as well, ask the ruling party to accommodate them in the cabinet with two or three important portfolios against technical quota staying within the framework of the constitution. They might ask for more freedom of speech, freedom of press and opportunities to contest the election from a level playing field.

And for that to happen, they will have to sit across the table with the Awami League and the Jatiya Party, the opposition bench in the parliament, for a constructive dialogue. If they want to settle the issue on the streets instead of sitting for dialogue, they might land in a situation beyond their control.

The BNP must also understand that nowhere, not even in developing countries, let alone developed countries like the USA, the UK and Europe, an incumbent president or prime minister quits power for the election to be held under an unelected government, be it a caretaker or interim government. Yes, they could at best press for the president to dissolve the parliament keeping the existing prime minister in office as the head of the election-time government, as has been the case in many other countries around the world. After all, when the sitting parliament members are allowed to contest the elections without vacating their seats from the parliament, there is hardly any possibility for the opposition candidates to contest the election from a level playing field.

But for that matter, the BNP-led opposition parties’ best course would probably be to sit across the table with the Awami League government and settle the issue.  There is no reason why Prime Minister Sheik Hasina would not like to sit with any political party that is ideologically secular and democratic and believes in the constitution of Bangladesh as a sovereign independent nation state emerged through a liberation war and has strong faith in the democratic process of running a government, in order to pave the way for a free, fair and participatory election.


The writer is a retired Master Mariner. Email:[email protected]