Lessons from Bangladesh elections for South Asia

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By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express 1 January 2019

Colombo, December 31 (Daily Express): The results of Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Bangladesh and those of the recent State Assembly elections in India show very clearly, that economic issues play a decisive role in shaping peoples’ electoral choice.

If the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got defeated in the Indian States of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh in elections held in November, it was primarily because it had not met the people’s economic needs despite being in power for more than one term.

Being agrarian economies, farmers’ issues were in the forefront in these States, especially because of the increasing number of suicides due to the mounting debt burden foisted on them by a faulty financial and economic system.

Turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the common man’s problems, the BJP was promoting “Hindutwa”, a communal ideology to strengthen the dominance of the Hindu majority over the minority communities. The BJP and the common man were out of sync completely.

In Sri Lanka, the Yahapalanaya government led by the United National Party (UNP) has been struggling to keep the people on its side because of its lackluster performance on the economic front since it assumed office in 2015.

No wonder, the UNP came a poor second in the February 2018 local bodies’ elections, and its ally the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) came a distant third. The UNP party is now looking for a replacement for its longtime leader Ranil Wickremesinghe whose neo-liberal and pro-Western economic policies had distanced the party from the hoi polloi.

Afraid of facing elections, the UNP (and till recently, the SLFP) had been postponing the long overdue Provincial elections. It is now trying to make up with a populist budget for 2019 in the hope that it will help it win the 2019 Presidential election and the 2020 parliamentary elections.

But observers wonder if the time available would be sufficient to make up for lost years.

In contrast, in Bangladesh, the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina had concentrated on economic development and on ensuring that the country had peace and stability to enable development take place. This had yielded her rich dividends in the just concluded parliamentary elections.

The Awami League swept the 11 th. Parliamentary elections held on Sunday, winning 267 out of the 299 seats up for grabs. The results gave Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, her third successive term in office, which is unprecedented.

The opposition Jatika Oikya Front (JOF), which included the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Begum Khaleda Zia, got only seven seats.

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 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 and allegedly tortured for exposing government’s brutality internationally.

However, observers note that the majority of Bangladeshis were of the view that such harsh steps were necessary, given the dangers from Islamic terrorism and the drug trade.

Hasina’s Humility

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.

All indications are that Hasina will continue to be on the development path.

In its manifesto, the Awami League 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.

And to ensure peace, the Hasina regime is expected to continue to take tough measures against Islamic fundamental terrorists and drug dealers if they raise their heads again.


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