As Bangladesh goes for general elections on December 30, the million dollar question in people’s minds is whether or not Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s authoritarian actions will dent her impressive developmental plank.
Hasina’s ten-year tenure as Prime Minister, from 2009 till date, has been marked by very impressive economic growth. It has been 6% on an average and 7.8% this year. Nikkei recently ran a special story on the “Rise and rise of Bangladesh”.
According to an IMF report of June 2018, growth in the last ten years has significantly lifted per capita income. Poverty has declined steadily. Gender disparity in education and maternal mortality, has also come down.
Throughout this process, the country has diversified away from an agrarian to a more manufacturing-based economy with rapid growth in the ready-made garment industry, the IMF said. The government showed its humanitarian outlook by opening its doors to 700,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in a very short period.
Bangladesh has been a pioneer in financial inclusion, the IMF noted and added that the introduction of microfinance, mobile financial services, and agent-based banking have been notable initiatives. The government has also been promoting lending for small and medium-sized enterprises and women entrepreneurs.
These efforts have improved the ratio of bank deposit accounts in the adult population and credit provided to small and medium-sized enterprises run by women. They have also helped to boost the number of women entrepreneurs and the number of active mobile money accounts. The forthcoming National Financial Inclusion Strategy will carry forth this momentum, the IMF avers.
Writing in www.bookings.edu, leading Indian economist Dr. Kaushik Basu says that Bangladesh has made significant strides toward educating girls and giving women a greater voice, both in the household and the public sphere.
“These efforts have translated into improvements in children’s health and education, such that Bangladeshis’ average life expectancy is now 72 years, compared to 68 for Indians and 66 for Pakistan,” Basu points out.
“Among Bangladeshi adults with bank accounts, 34.1 percent made digital transactions in 2017, compared to an average rate of 27.8 percent for South Asia. Moreover, only 10.4 percent of Bangladeshi bank accounts are dormant (meaning there were no deposits or withdrawals in the previous year), compared to 48 percent of Indian bank accounts,” Basu notes.
In contrast to India, entrepreneurs in Bangladesh have the advantage of weak labor laws which allow them to hire and fire workers and expand capacity to exploit economies of scale.
But there is a downside to the economic growth story. Corruption, cronyism, and inequality have tended to increase with economic growth. For instance. Non-Performing Loans in 14 banks had led to the loss of US$ 2.5 billion. Weak labor laws have made industrial safety an issue.
The Hasina regime has been lambasted for the use of the law and the police to suppress opponents. an unbridled force has been used to suppress Islamic terrorists and drug dealers, though observers note that vast sections of people are relieved that these vicious elements have been defanged.
The government had been indifferent to emotional protests such as the school kids’ nation-wide agitation against the recklessness of bus drivers this year. World famous photographer Shahidul Alam was arrested and tortured for speaking to Al Jazeera on the agitation.
A 2014 promise to rule by consultation with various groups before taking key decisions has not been kept. This has given rise to a movement against a “One Person State” led by Dr.Kamal Hossain of the Jatiya Oikya Front (JOF), which includes the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by three times Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.
Prof. Ali Riaz of Illinois State University, writing in East Asian Forum says that the space for dissent in Bangladesh has shrunk “remarkably” in the past five years. The media has either been muzzled or co-opted, and journalists tend to exercise self-censorship. In November, the government enacted a draconian Digital Security Act which curtails freedom of expression.
Bangladesh has also experienced an “exponential rise in extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances”. At least 456 people were killed and 83 people disappeared between January and November this year, Riaz notes.
But as pointed out earlier, it is learnt that the common man is more keen on law and order, fewer disruptions to his life, and lesser radicalism, than on adherence to Western standards of law enforcement.
Riaz says that the Election Commission (EC) has been failing to ensure a level playing field as it turns a blind eye to the ruling party’s election code violations. Another observer said that the EC is going by the letter and not the spirit of the law. This has resulted in some anomalies. Candidatures have been rejected on technical, or as some say, frivolous grounds.
The Daily Star notes that as polling day gets nearer, more and more opposition BNP leaders are “skidding off the race”. On Friday, five opposition aspirants lost their candidacies following a High Court order. The court had pointed out that the government had not accepted their resignations from the post of Upazila Chairmen. According to the Representation of the People Order (RPO), anyone holding “an office of profit” like that of an Upazila Chairman is barred from running for parliament.
With the five gone, the BNP now has no contenders in 15 of the 300 seats up for grabs in parliament (50 of the total of 350 seats are reserved for women chosen by Proportional Representation).
The High Court on Thursday directed the EC to allocate the BNP’s symbol “Sheaf of Paddy” to four BNP candidates instead of their rivals who had been given the symbol earlier. This was because the candidates who had been given the symbol earlier, had not submitted their resignations to the concerned government department within a “reasonable” period.
One of the reasons for nominations backfiring is that the BNP of today is disorganized, and is but a pale shadow of what it was earlier. It’s Supremo, the aging and unwell Khaleda Zia, was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for corruption. Rules bar the use her pictures on BNP posters. Her son and political heir, Tarique Rahman, is a fugitive in the UK.
The BNP’s structure is in disarray also because it debilitated itself by opting out of the last elections held in 2014. It quit the arena saying its demand for an independent election-time caretaker government was rejected.
Twenty two Jamaat-e-Islami leaders contesting under the BNP’s electoral symbol “sheaf of paddy” await the Election Commission’s decision on their candidacies. They had taken the BNP’s ticket since the EC had scrapped the radical Islamic party’s registration as a political party following a High Court ruling.
Aware that she had ruled with an iron fist and that she had not met all the expectations of the electorate, Sheikh Hasina has sought pardon and asked the people to give her another chance.
“To err is human. My colleagues and I might have made mistakes while performing our duties. I, on behalf of myself and my party, fervently request the countrymen to look kindly on our mistakes I promise to build a more beautiful future by learning from the past,” Hasina she said when releasing her party Awami League’s manifesto.
Awami League aims to increase GDP growth to 10% per annum from the present 7.8% in the next five years. It wants to bring down, by 2041, the poverty rate to zero from about 22% now. It promises to create jobs for 10 million plus youths, with foreign employment for 1,000 youths from each Upazila.
In contrast to Khaleda Zia, who alienated India, Hasina has been balancing varying interests very judiciously. She has been very friendly with India despite the dispute over Padma river waters. She pleased New Delhi by crushing Islamic terrorism. But she curbed Islamic terrorism without antagonizing the moderate Islamic lobby. She co-opted the Islamist Hifazat-e-Islam. And she accepted huge investments from China without antagonizing India in the process.
(The featured image at the top shows Sheikh Hasina.Photo: Nikkei)