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     Volume 11 |Issue 46| November 23, 2012 |


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Obama's Triumph
Lessons for Us?

Manzoor Ahmed

Barack Obama sailed to an easy electoral college victory on November 6, following an acrimonious and expensive campaign, for a second term as the 44th President of the United States. The country remained divided in popular vote count, with about 62 million supporting Obama and 59 million standing behind Gov. Mitt Romney. Facing a fateful general election in a year, concerned citizens in Bangladesh look for parallels and lessons.

Before all the votes were counted in many states in the evening of November 6, based on statistical projections from state-by-state early returns, national TV channels declared Obama re-elected. From his Chicago hotel, Obama called Romney congratulating him for running a strong campaign and wishing to meet him on the challenges for the country.

Barack Obama, Photo: AFP

Mitt Romney, in his turn, soon after midnight, came to the ballroom of his Boston hotel to concede defeat. “I have just called President Obama to congratulate him on his victory,” said Romney. “The nation is at a critical point... Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people's work... I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation.”

Mind you, all this happened much before the official counting of the returns was completed. But the trend was clear enough, which the contending parties had the sense and the civility to accept. This is a parallel we are not likely to witness in Bangladesh in the next general election.

In 2008, Barack Obama made history by becoming the first African-American to be the president of the United States. Obama had forged a grand coalition of young people cutting across geography and economic background, women, and minorities including blacks, Latinos and Asians, to steer the country in a new direction.

Obama's triumph provoked visceral reaction from older white males, the Christian right, and in the conservative mid-west and the south where not-so-subtle racial prejudices remained alive and well. The detractors spread rumours that Obama was secretly a Muslim, that he was a closet “socialist” (a dirty word in USA), and not even an American citizen by birth.

Obama tried to reach across the aisle on key agendas - overhauling the broken healthcare system, resuscitating the economy with a stimulus package, stemming the rising debt burden, bringing financial market and Wall Street under regulations, and creating a sustainable budget and taxation structure.

Facing unrelenting animus from the Republican opposition, Obama gave up hope of any bipartisan accord and pushed through a comprehensive health care law, a stimulus package, and a financial regulation package. He failed to adopt a tax restructuring and budget package that would maintain economic growth and reduce deficits eventually.

Does Obama's re-election indicate a mandate? The opposition denies it citing the retention of Republican majority in the House of Representatives and in the offices of the State Governors. But in the Senate, the Democratic Party enhanced its majority and an unprecedented number of 20 women were voted into the Senate.

It cannot be denied that the majority of voters rejected extremist Republican positions. The majority, though not a resounding one, bought the prudent and moderate Democratic position about the role of the government in building infrastructures, supporting education and research, balancing economic growth and environmental concerns, and making the playing field even with tax structures and economic regulations.

In 2008, Sheikh Hasina was given an overwhelming mandate to lead the nation back to the path of democracy after two years of a military backed caretaker regime. This unelected government had come about as a consequence of the machination of the four-party BNP-Jamaat coalition in power during 2001-5. The coalition tried to control the election commission, prepare a fraudulent voter list, and manipulate the then prevailing care-taker government system, which supervised the election, through a compliant and notoriously weak-kneed President Iajuddin.

One major accomplishment and an irony in the convoluted story of the army-backed government was the preparation of an acceptable voter list and holding an orderly general election in 2008, undoing the previous elected government's anti-democratic machinations. This election gave Sheikh Hasina and her coalition partners the resounding victory.

The electorate was persuaded by the coalition's promise of change -- din bodoler shopno, the vision of progress towards a more prosperous and just society by 2021, when the nation turns 50. The nation expressed the hope of making a new beginning, turning a new leaf in history from the fateful August night of 1975, when the father of the nation was assassinated by renegade military adventurers and the national struggle to build a progressive and secular democracy was halted.

Amazingly, the regime elected in 2008 managed to upset the whole international community, on whose goodwill and support we should be able to count, by creating a “Yunus Affair” out of nothing that concerns the vital interest of the country, by handling with utter ineptitude the Padma bridge loan agreement with the World bank and other donors, and in general failing to restrain corruption, cronyism, and lawlessness.

The election manifesto pledged to make local government at the union, upazila and district level the pivot of development activities with control and accountability vested at these levels. In fact, anything less is unacceptable by Articles 11 and 59 of the Constitution, which is being flouted continuously. The pressure and vested interests of parliament members, overwhelmingly businessmen, obstructed the devolution of authority and resources to the local government bodies.

The Bangladesh Constitution
Article 11. Democracy and human rights
The Republic shall be a democracy in which fundamental human rights and freedoms and respect for the dignity and worth of the human person shall be guaranteed, and in which effective participation by the people through their elected representatives in administration at all levels shall be ensured.

Article 59. Local Government
(1) Local Government in every administrative unit of the Republic shall be entrusted to bodies, composed of persons elected in accordance with law.

(2) Everybody such as is referred to in clause (1) shall, subject to this Constitution and any other law, perform within the appropriate administrative unit such functions as shall be prescribed by Act of Parliament, which may include functions relating to - (a) Administration and the work of public officers; (b) the maintenance of public order; and (c) the preparation and implementation of plans relating to public services and economic development. [emphasis added]

The crusade against pervasive corruption was a key election pledge. But the public perception and the outcome of its work suggest that the Anti-Corruption Commission is weak, inept and hardly independent. Government foot-dragging can be seen in the lack of support for all public accountability and statutory bodies such as the Human Rights Commission, Law Commission and the Right to Information Commission.

The nation welcomed the promise to put on trial those responsible for crimes against humanity in 1971. A delayed start in this regard has been followed by slow and lackadaisical progress. Concerned citizens are frustrated and dismayed by poor professionalism, leadership and resources for this vital endeavour.

With only a year remaining before the parliamentary election, the regime cannot fulfill many pledges that they have not even begun to address credibly. It now needs to recognise that it has failed to fulfill expectations and must indicate how it would conduct itself, if given another chance.

Mere words will not be enough. The regime has to provide a preview in the coming months of how differently it would behave if re-elected, instead of claiming successes where these do not exist, blaming all problems on the opposition or a deep conspiracy, or simply blustering.

For a starter, there has to be a serious dialogue with the opposition about finding an acceptable formula for holding the general election. This discussion must have two elements -- strengthening the election commission and the composition, leadership and role of the government that will be in power during the election. This may require modifying the hastily and unwisely adopted 15th amendment.

Secondly, there must be a hard-headed review of progress on the key promises that gave the regime a large majority in the parliament. An unflinching assessment of what beginning can be made in the year ahead that will continue in the next term should be the task of this review.

Thirdly, an unequivocal signal must go out that muscle and money will not be the criterion for selecting parliamentary candidates. Rules of the public representation order including declaration of assets, disclosure of business involvements, and all allegations about criminal activities must be seriously followed, scrutinised by independent reviewers and announced publicly. The three by- election results in Chandpur, Narayanganj and Tangail, where the ruling party nominees were roundly trounced by independent rebel candidates, should be a wake-up call for the regime.

If a make-over of the mindset and conduct of the ruling regime cannot be made in a way credible to the public within a short time, the electoral majority may not be as sympathetic to the regime as it has been to the incumbent in USA. The observant voter may be in a mood to say - “Throw out this bunch of rascals who have not delivered on their promises; try out the other bunch, since there is little to choose from.” Let there not be a repeat of 2001 in 2013.

The writer is a senior adviser at the Institute of Educational Development, BRAC University.


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