By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Mirror
Colombo, January 1: The Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League swept the 11 th. Parliamentary elections in Bangladesh held on Sunday, winning 267 out of the 299 seats up for grabs.
The opposition Jatika Oikya Front (JOF), which included the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Begum Khaleda Zia, got only seven seats.
Sheikh Hasina herself took the Gopalgunj-3 constituency by storm. She got 229,529 votes from the 246,514 voters in the constituency.
Hasina’s stunning victory almost replicated her father Shiekh Mujibur Rahman’s achievement in the landmark East Pakistan provincial elections in 1970, in which he got 288 out of the 300 seats in the Assembly. That victory strengthened Mujib’s movement for Bengalis’ rights in Pakistan and paved the way for the creation of an independent Bangladesh in 1971.
However, the 2018 elections were marked by 18 deaths and the arrest of 7,000 opposition activists. On election day, more than 30 candidates from the opposition parties withdrew from the contest complaining of intimidation.
But taking the country as a whole, and in contrast to previous elections in the country, polling this time was peaceful. International observers from India, Nepal, SAARC and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), certified the election process as “credible”.
But the Opposition Oikya Front chief Dr. Kamal Hossain insisted that the polls were a ‘farce’ and demanded a fresh vote. The BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir described the election as a “mockery of democracy.”
Reasons for Victory
An analysis of the results would reveal that Hasina’s achievements on the economic and law and order fronts have paid dividends, though her methods of dealing with anti-systemic elements might have run counter to Western human rights and good governance standards.
Hasina’s ten-year tenure as Prime Minister, from 2008 till date, was marked by very impressive economic growth. It has been 6% on an average and was 7.8% in 2018, making Nikkei run a special story on the “Rise and rise of Bangladesh” recently.
According to an IMF report of June 2018, growth in the last ten years had significantly lifted per capita income. Poverty, gender disparity in education and maternal mortality, had declined steadily.
Bangladesh had diversified from an agrarian to a more manufacturing-based economy with rapid growth in the ready-made garment industry, the IMF said.
Bangladesh had been a pioneer in financial inclusion. The introduction of microfinance, mobile financial services, and agent-based banking were notable initiatives. The government had also been encouraging lending for small and medium-sized enterprises and female entrepreneurs.
Leading Indian economist Dr. Kaushik Basu said that Bangladesh had made significant strides toward educating girls and giving women a greater voice.
“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 Pakistanis,” 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, the economist says.
Another observer noted that Hasina was aware of the fact that 25 million would be first time voters and for these young people, jobs and economic opportunities would be more important than ideology, whether religious or political. Therefore, her focus had been on giving them economic opportunities and a non-disruptive environment to enable them to pursue their economic interests.
But there is a downside to the economic growth story. Corruption, cronyism, and inequality increased with economic growth. For instance, Non-Performing Loans (NPL) in 14 banks had led to the loss of US$ 2.5 billion. Weak labor laws had made industrial safety an issue.
The Hasina regime was lambasted for suppressing opponents. Unbridled force had been used to suppress Islamic terrorists and drug dealers. At least 456 people were killed extra-judicially and 83 disappeared between January and November this year.
Human rights protesters like the famous photographer Dr.Shahidul Alam were jailed for exposing government brutality internationally.
However, observers note that the majority of Bangladeshis were of the view that such harsh steps were called for, given the dangers from Islamic terrorism and the drug trade.
Prof. Ali Riaz of Illinois State University, writing in East Asian Forum says that the space for dissent in Bangladesh had shrunk “remarkably” in the past five years. The media had either been muzzled or co-opted, and journalists tended to exercise self-censorship. In November, the government enacted a draconian Digital Security Act which curtailed freedom of expression.
One of the reasons for the opposition’s weakness was that the BNP ,which was the main component, had destroyed itself. It boycotted the 2014 elections and as a result lost cadres.
It’s Supremo, the aging and unwell Khaleda Zia, was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for corruption. Her son and political heir, Tarique Rahman, is a fugitive in the UK. The party was leaderless.
Aware that she had ruled with an iron fist and that she had not met all the expectations of the electorate in her ten years in power, Sheikh Hasina had 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.
In the run up to the elections, the Awami League had promised 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 had promised 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 had been balancing varying domestic and international interests very judiciously. She had 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.
She accepted huge investments from China but without antagonizing India in the process. She had kept the army on the leash but happy, by meeting its weapons requirements as per its specifications and wishes, but without antagonizing India which had been eager to be the “net security provider for the region.”
(The featured image at the top is that of Sheikh Hasina)