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                 Volume 11 |Issue 01| January 06, 2012 |


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Cover Story

A Choppier Fourth Year?

When the Awami League (AL)-led Grand Alliance government came to power riding an electoral landslide, it promised to bring about change in the country's politics. Three years on, change is yet to arrive at the doorstep of the common men, some of whom have reasons to feel betrayed and disillusioned. A lot of weak and whimsical steps taken by the government threaten to mar some of its remarkable achievements. Now that Sheikh Hasina is about to steer the boat into a choppier fourth year in office, we try to explore where the country stands at this crucial juncture.

Shakhawat Liton

In the run up to the 2008 general election, Awami League, in its electoral manifesto, stated: "The forthcoming parliamentary elections have created an opportunity for the re-establishment of democracy and inspired hopes for rapid socio-economic development mainly by providing good governance and people's participation.

"In this context Bangladesh Awami League declares its election manifesto with the promise of change by making our dear motherland a country free from hunger and poverty, illiteracy, corruption and militancy."

The December 29 parliamentary polls have created unprecedented opportunities for people to vote for change. Photo: Amirul Rajiv

AL chief Sheikh Hasina, on December 12 of 2008, announced her party's electoral manifesto styled "A Charter for Change," which also made some crucial pledges to establish long cherished "good governance" in the country.

Making the parliament effective, ensuring "genuine" independence of judiciary, bringing change in the confrontational culture in politics and freeing administration from politicisation were among other significant promises to bring an "end to mis-governance".

The AL's observations were completely right---the December 29 parliamentary polls have created unprecedented opportunities for people to vote for change. People were also desperately seeking changes from the culture of confrontational politics, pervasive corruption and misrule. The electorates did not waste time in falling in love with AL's pledges for change. And they did not hesitate to extend their wholehearted support to the party, providing the AL-led alliance with 262 out of 299 parliamentary seats—the highest score bagged by an electoral alliance win since restoration the of democracy in 1990. The AL alone won 230 seats!

Politics has become more volatile and confrontational. Photo: Star File

In contrast, the BNP-Jamaat-led Four-Party Alliance faced a stunning defeat in the December 29 parliamentary polls mainly because of their unbridled corruption and misrule during their regime from 2001 to 2006. The BNP alone won only 27 seats, the lowest-ever score in the history of the party.

In less than a month, people again extended their wholehearted support to the ruling AL in the January 22 upazila polls. The AL-backed candidates won more than 400 chairmanships in the same number of upazila parishads out of total 481 upazilas countrywide. The landslide victory in the crucial local government polls also gave the AL immense opportunities to consolidate its base at grassroots level and to bring radical changes in both political structure and also in the implementation of development programs.

The promised change has not arrived yet. Photo: Amirul Rajiv

Thus, people made the change, putting onus on the AL-led grand alliance to respect the electorates' mandate. And the AL-led government began a tight rope journey on January 6, 2009 amid people's high expectations for change. It completed three years in office on January 5 and it steps in its fourth year today--January 6. This means that the government has already spent sixty percent of its five year long life span. It will have forty percent of its life span to spend before seeking people's mandate in the next parliamentary election. People who are always the best judges will give their verdict by rating the AL-led government's performance.

Photo: Amirul Rajiv

How was the performance of the AL-led government over the last three years? Here we will discuss how the government delivered on its electoral pledges to establish good governance in the country.

The issue of governance was prioritised in the ruling AL's electoral manifesto, as it stated: "The forthcoming parliamentary elections have created an opportunity for the re-establishment of democracy and inspired hopes for rapid socio-economic development mainly by providing good governance."

After three years, the picture of good governance looks gloomy because of the government's failure to deliver on most crucial electoral pledges.

There are only a few successes---the beginning of the trials of war criminals and execution of the Bangabandhu murder case. But the beginning of retrial of historic jail killings in line with the polls pledges still remains uncertain.

Therefore, in the wake of prevailing situation, one may argue that the government might have forgotten the all important pledges to establish good governance in the country.

In the electoral manifesto, the AL promised that "all necessary steps will be taken for making Parliament effective. "Except for some specific subjects related to the security of the state, Parliament members will be allowed to express differing opinions," reads the manifesto.

Photos: Star File
Power is becoming costlier for the general public.

But after three years, the current picture mocks at the polls pledges. No significant steps were taken in the last three years to make the House effective. Even the government policymakers stood against some proposals including the one for enacting law to empower parliamentary bodies that oversee the government functions. The ruling AL could not make sincere efforts to bring an end to the House boycott culture by the opposition parties, although the culture is crippling the parliament.

The ruling AL did not take steps to change the confrontational culture in politics as promised. "Courtesy and tolerance will be inculcated in the political culture of the country. Awami League will take initiative to formulate a consensual and unanimous charter of political behaviour," reads the AL electoral manifesto.

No move has been made in the last three years to make politics better; on the contrary, it has become more volatile and confrontational. The government unilaterally abolished the caretaker government system by amending the constitution last year in June, triggering the fear of a possible political turmoil centering the next parliamentary polls.

The government also looks weak in fighting corruption as it did not deliver on its electoral manifesto that promised:" Multi-pronged measures to fight corruption will be put into place. Strong measures will be taken against those having unearned and black money, against loan defaulters, tender manipulators, and users of muscle power in every stage of state and society.”

The current reality is different. The government has even moved to clip the power of the Anti-Corruption Commission. It has placed a bill in parliament seeking to amend the ACC law to make it mandatory for the anti-graft body to take prior permission of the government to file graft cases against the government’s officials.

The Awami League government has started the War Crimes Trial. Photo: Rashed Sumon
Photo: Shawkat Jamil  

Wealth statements and sources of income of the Prime Minister, members of cabinet, MPs and of their family members were not made public, although the AL promised to do so every year.

In the last three years, the government has never moved to appoint an Ombudsman.

In the first two years, extrajudicial killings by law enforcers struck a blow to the rule of law promised by the ruling party in its "charter for change." And in the third year, the number of extra-judicial killings was largely reduced, but secret killings and sudden disappearances have been a serious threat to the people's security.

The government did not hesitate to use law enforcers to launch a crackdown on the opposition political parties. In fact, police brutality on the opposition is on the rise. The way the government is using the police and other law enforcing agencies proved that it has failed to keep them above political influence.

It could not bring reforms in the civil service in line with the polls pledges to free the administration politicisation. "Efficiency, seniority and merit will be the basis of appointment and promotion in public service," the AL promised in the manifesto. But the current situation in the public service portrays a picture opposite to the poll pledges.

The government also failed to make the local government institutions stronger in line with the ruling AL's electoral pledges. Rather, its whimsical decision to bifurcate the Dhaka City Corporation into two and keep the upazila parishads dysfunctional has drawn huge criticism for the government.

The AL pledged to ensure "genuine independence and impartiality of the judiciary". But it has refrained from restoring the original provisions of the constitution of 1972 to ensure effective independence of judiciary. It also failed to do away controversy regarding to the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court.

Moreover, the withdrawal of politically-motivated cases against the ruling alliance men is another dark spot, and also a serious threat to rule of law.

Now, the policymakers of the ruling AL and government need to evaluate their performances sincerely and honestly to decide their next course of actions. If they can do so and are honest about acknowledging their shortcomings and weaknesses in the efforts to establish good governance, they may be able to do something in the remaining two years to regain people's confidence in the ruling AL and the government. If they deny the current situation and keep claiming that everything is all right, then they will have to wait for people's verdict in the next polls.

There can be a sea of arguments in defence of the increasing price of essentials, fuels and a rise in the cost of living. But how will the government defend its failure to take measures to promote good governance? It is time for a turnaround. The sooner the better, or else the worst might lurk ahead in the bend of history.

The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.

The Balance Sheet

It was like no other. In the last general elections, the Awami League (AL)-led Grand Alliance's electoral victory gave new hopes to a people who so verily deserved a bright future. Weary of the past Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government's misrule and ever-pervasive kleptocracy, people voted en mass for change. It is indeed rare in the history of democracy that an immediate-past government is booted out in an election in such a manner.

In fact, public support for the Mohajote candidates was so overwhelming that had HM Ershad's Jatya Party won a few more seats, the BNP would have ceased to remain the main opposition in the parliament.

Photo: Amirul Rajiv

The Grand Alliance government, at the beginning, showed promise. Sheikh Hasina, with her remarkable brinkmanship, chose a set of new faces for her cabinet, most of whom were widely perceived to be honest and sincere. It did pay off-- Matia Chowdhury, Nurul Islam Nahid and GM Quader have remained the shining examples of what good planning, backed by an able leadership, can achieve.

So the first year went off rather smoothly. Matia Chowdhury was a successful minister in Hasina's first term in office, and in her second stint, Matia repeated the remarkable feat of making Bangladesh self-sufficient in food production.

Agriculture's success is closely followed by education. With suave, soft-spoken Nurul Islam Nahid in the helm, test-books have been handed down to school children free of cost, and, on top of it all, the whole affair has been carried out in a transparent manner.

On the civil aviation and tourism front, which overflows with the lure of corruption, GM Quader, until he was shifted to the commerce ministry, had run the ministry rather well. The start of the war crime trials is also one of the greatest achievements the government can boast of.

For the government, it started to sour in the second year. Eventhough some rental power plants were quickly built and power outage was kept to the bare minimum, people went through a lot of suffering thanks to the spiralling prices of essentials. Lt Col Faruk Khan, the then commerce minister, who has just been shifted to the civil aviation and tourism ministry, had become a joke overnight. He started his duty by declaring a jihad against the so-called syndicates that manipulated the market, saying prices would go down "soon".

But it has never happened, instead the minister contributed to the price hike by making unnecessary and, at times, ludicrous comments, which upset an already volatile market. People belonging to the lower and middle classes are especially finding it difficult, if not impossible, to make ends meet. According to a report by the Consumers Council of Bangladesh, ordinary Bangladeshis are resorting to bank-loans and other borrowing to buy essential food items.

Hasina's second year had also witnessed a boom in the country's two burses, and the bust came the following year. As hundreds of small-scale investors took to the streets after being robbed off by a curtail of businessmen belonging to the AL and the BNP, the Finance Minister AMA Muhit famously claimed that he didn't understand how share markets functioned.

All his comments did was deteriorate the health of the economy, and the burse had witnessed an all time low within a few days. Finance Adviser Moshiur Rahman added further fuel to the fire by making strange comments on the investors, some of whom had put their lives' savings in the market.

Muhit's manhandling of the economy, especially his failure to curb rising inflation has increased people's suffering. Government borrowing has increased alarmingly, and to make matters worse, the Arab Spring has disturbed the inflow of remittance that has been the lifeline for the country's foreign reserve.

Coupled with that came the then Communications Minister Abul Hossain's inept handling of the highways, which were in such a bad shape that transport owners called one strike after the other across the country demanding a quick repair of the roads. Abul remained in the helm.

The World Bank later decided to suspend financing the Padma Bridge project as an allegation of corruption by the Minister's firm SAHCO was raised. At first the AL leadership brushed it aside saying the government would look for other ways to build the bridge which would connect the country's south-east to the capital. Abul, who was sacked in Sheikh Hasina's first term in office, was later given the ICT Ministry and veteran AL leader Obaidul Quader was given the ministry. It will however be interesting to see how Quader manages to clean the transport sector, which is now riddled with lawlessness and anarchy.

Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan has never been content with his own ministry. But he regularly makes comment on the transport sector, not only that he at times has come up with ludicrous comments to mitigate public suffering. He has once suggested that no educational qualification should be needed to get a driving license, that too in a country where more people die in deadly diseases than accidents.

One of the biggest blemishes in Hasina's second term in office is perhaps the ever deteriorating law and order situation. The President's pardoning of convicted criminals patronised by the AL leaders has also set a bad precedence, making a mockery of justice and the rule of law. Even though no allegations of corruption have been raised against her, Sahara Khatun has not been entirely successful in curbing lawlessness. The gunning down of midlevel AL and BNP leaders is on the rise, alarming also is the disappearance and secret killing of general people and leaders and workers of the opposition.

The government, after taking power, took a lot of ambitious projects that demand the investment of billons of dollars. Now that it has finally been hit by a cash crunch, the government might have to swallow the bitter pill. Add to that spiralling inflation and the BNP-led violent agitation in the street, it translates into the untold suffering of the masses.

Even though some ministers in her cabinet have failed to live up to the expectations, Sheikh Hasina has steadfastly defended them. In modern democracy cabinets need to be reshuffled as the bad at times dwarfs the good. New blood needs to be injected into her ministries. It is only normal that half-way through its term a government would go through a mid life crisis. Sheikh Hasina, who had shown brinkmanship during her electioneering, needs to rise up to the occasion and turn the boat around to steer the nation towards a better future.


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