12:00 AM, November 20, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 20, 2012

Obama's victory: Lessons for Hasina

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Manzoor Ahmed

Though it was predicted to be a nail-biting finish of an acrimonious and expensive campaign, in the end, Barack Obama sailed to an easy Electoral College victory. The country remained divided in popular vote count, with 61 million supporting Obama and 58 million standing behind Governor Mitt Romney. Are there parallels and lessons for Bangladesh, which is facing a general election in a year?
Before all the votes were counted in many states on the evening of November 6, based on statistical projections from state-by-state early returns, national TV channels declared Obama re-elected for the second term as the president of the United States. 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.
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 African-Americans, 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 the conservative mid-west and the south where not-so-subtle racial prejudices remain alive and well. The detractors spread rumours that Obama was secretly a Muslim, that he was a closet “socialist” (a dirty word in the US), and not even an American citizen by birth.
Obama tried to reach across the aisle on key agendasoverhauling 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 animosity from the Republican opposition, Obama gave up hope of bipartisan accord and pushed through a comprehensive health care law, a stimulus package, and a financial regulation package. He failed to adopt tax restructuring and budget package that would maintain economic growth and reduce deficits eventually.
What mandate does Obama's re-election indicate? It is clear 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 regime came about because of the machination of the four-party coalition in power during 2001-5. The coalition tried to control and manipulate the Election Commission, voter list preparation, and the then prevailing care-taker government system, which supervised the election.
One major accomplishment in the convoluted story of the army-backed government was the preparation of an acceptable voter list and holding of an orderly general election in 2008, which 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.
Amazingly, the regime managed to upset the whole international community, whose goodwill and support we should be able to count on, by creating a “Yunus Affair” out of nothing that concerns the vital interest of the country, and by handling with utter ineptitude the Padma bridge loan agreement with the World Bank and other donors.
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 Article 11 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 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 and the 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 it has not even begun to address credibly. It now needs to recognise that it has failed to fulfill expectations and indicate how it would behave differently, 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.
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 the US. Let there not be a repeat of 2001 in 2013. The discerning and observant voter must not be given the reasons to say: “Throw out this bunch of people who have not delivered on their promises; try out the other bunch, since there is little to choose from.”

The writer is Senior Adviser, Institute of Educational Development. Brac University.

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