By Adil Khan and Habib Zafarullah* 4 December 2018
The 2018 Bangladesh General Election scheduled on December 30, 2018 marks the end of two consecutive terms of the ruling Awami League (AL), first ever by any political party since 1991, the year a combined opposition movement against a decade long dictatorship resurrected and re-introduced parliamentary democracy in the country.
During the past decade of AL rule, the country has experienced remarkable economic growth and its strong-arm policies have suppressed ‘Islamic’ terrorism. However, during this period, the country has also witnessed serious erosion of democratic norms and horrendous abuse of human rights.
On the eve of the general election these contradictory performances of the government have provided the much-needed opportunity to do a balanced stock-taking so that whoever wins the forthcoming election and takes over the reign of the country reflects on these and nurtures the good and shuns the bad.
A recently published Special Issue, Whither Bangladesh of the US-based, South Asia Journal (SAJ) has done just that. Through invited papers from experts in the field, the Issue has catalogued both accomplishments and the challenges so that good deeds are sustained, and challenges are overcome.
On the economic front and by citing the example of the fast growing RMG sector – Bangladesh’s main economic driver – that started its march in late seventies and gained much of its galloping growth during the current AL administration has also been mired by, what an the Special Issue, refers as ‘Global/Local Black Value Chain’ (GLBVC) that extends from global to local and vice versa and a chain that promotes injustices and inequities in the sector, that in 2013, culminated into the Rana Plaza tragedy – a worst ever industrial accident in the history of Bangladesh. The Rana Plaza incident demonstrated the worst of GLBVC where global colluded with the local to reveal the worst of worker abuse, exploitation and neglect. Although several remediation interventions have been made since the tragedy and these have indeed improved things noticeably in the sector, weaknesses of accountability and transparency and lack of respect to labour rights that characterize the GLBVC continue to keep room for exploitation and deepening of inequities in the sector.
Another key sector of Bangladesh’s growth is migrant worker remittances, is also fraught. The Special issue refers to several malpractices that consistently affect the safety, security and welfare of migrant workers including remittances.
On energy sector, the Special Issue notes that government’s achievements in the sector have been phenomenal – during 2009-2017, access to electricity has increased from 47% to 80% and per capita generation from 220 KWh to 433 KWh, an increase of 100% – and successfully met short to medium term energy needs of the country with amazing speed and determination. But the Issue also cautions that a vested interest of energy peddlers that has emerged since endangers sector’s long-term planning. Referring to the Energy sector’s long-term issues as ‘trilemma challenges’- meaning reliability, affordability and sustainability – the Special Issue flags importance of an immediate comprehensive study to determine technology options that are affordable, reliable and sustainable. Such a study is also expected to provide the much-needed framework for urgently needed predictability for long-term investments in the sector. Another study emphasizes the importance of regional cooperation in meeting the challenges of energy needs but also points at political constraints that impede realization of this objective, at least in near terms.
Social Development, Gender and Climate Change
Achievements in social development have also been equally impressive especially in preventive health but the Special Issue notes that as the sector is transiting fast from public to private service providers quality, cost and access are emerging as its main challenges which are mainly governance related and concern standards, regulation, quality and cost control aspects of the private sector health.
AL regime has also initiated important legislative and administrative measures to empower and combat violence against women, especially éve-teasing’, a rising menace in Bangladesh that relates to sexual abuse of women – both verbal and physical – in public places. However, thanks to the patriarchal norms, weak implementation of laws and impotency of the gendered administrative measures and most importantly, corruption and indifferent if not hostile attitude of the law enforcement agencies towards the victims often render the gender empowering measures or of little to no use. As a result, violence against women especially ‘eve teasing’ continues to rise constraining freedom of movement including costing lives of women through violence, suicides etc.
On the issues of climate change and food security, Special Issue notes that commerce-focused economic policies that continuously alter the local agri-ecology and promotes disconnect between the realities on the ground and policies and distort introduction of suitable adaptation initiatives, aggravate further the climate change vulnerabilities of the coastal communities of Bangladesh especially their food security.
In sum the Special Issue catalogues many positive accomplishments especially in development during the last decade but at the same time, it also records ever worsening governance deficits – breakdown of rule of law, corruption, absence of accountability and transparency in public governance, erosion of freedom and rising authoritarianism etc – as the country’s emerging challenges as threats to progress.
In the Special Issue experts have argued that the governance backslides in Bangladesh combine populism and authoritarianism in an interconnected way, which over the years have morphed themselves into a set of ‘hybrid’ arrangements that relies on patronage distribution, abuse of rule of law and repression for survival, eroding democratic norms, reducing checks and balances and aggravating human rights abuse in the country. Indeed, in these conditions of ‘hybrid’ governing arrangements, the Parliament, the highest law-making body in the country has become a ‘minimal’ institution, has lost its capacity to discharge its lawmaking and legislative oversight functions almost entirely. Lack of decentralization, another governance anachronism in Bangladesh, continues to stymie effective service delivery at the local government level.
2018 Election: Expectations, Concerns and the Way Forward
So where do we go from here and why 2018 election is so important?
Firstly, in order to maintain the development momentum which is key to the survival of this land of 165 million people (and counting), there has to be an unfailing appreciation that good governance and development are strongly correlated, and that faltering governance endangers development. Secondly, a free and fair election that installs a government with citizen mandate and promotes ownership, transparency and accountability in governance and drive development more accountably, sustainably and equitably is a sin qua non to strengthening citizen trust in the government and bolstering accountability in governance that are key to promoting harmony and stability and more importantly, maintaining the momentum of growth to advance Bangladesh to its middle-income status by 2021.
Good news is that the government has become aware of the need of the hour and accordingly, has shunned its ‘no-talk’ position to dialoguing with the opposition to find ways to hold a free and fair election. This has been promising and the results have been astounding – for the first time in several years, Opposition is campaigning and holding rallies though not completely freely and not without the familiar scenes of intimidation, obstructions, arrests and violence, reportedly, with collusion of the Police. This is unfortunate and does not augur well for the much desired free and fair election in the country.
In this context what however is quite puzzling is why the government given its impressive record in development something that only they and not the opposition can claim and be proud of, has chosen violence not its positives as its campaign strategy? Has the ruling party, a ‘hybrid’ regime, has become a prisoner of its own bad habits?
However, in comparison with 2014 election when similar conditions of unfreedom and violence existed and as a result, the election was shunned by the mainstream political party, the BNP, this time around, an Oikyo Front, an opposition alliance which is headed by a much-respected octogenarian jurist and includes BNP, has decided to contest the election and are campaigning. This is positive and thus wonders whether a combined opposition that once toppled another authoritarian regime and resurrected democracy in 1990 could wither the challenges and do it again, this time through ballot?
Special Issue notes that “Violence before and during elections is, regrettably, normal in Bangladesh” but cautions that “…the context and the possible outcomes of such violence are much different this time.” It argues that ‘re-election’ of the government through another rigged election will not abate but “ratchet up …[violence] after the election.”
It thus cautions that “This election may very well be the last chance” for Bangladesh to march ahead as a stable, inclusive, democratic and prosperous country and that obstructions to a free and fair and election and another ‘win’ by the government without the credible mandate of the people would lead to furthering of authoritarianism, human rights abuses and violence and in the process would threaten the stability, security and safety of not just Bangladesh but the region as a whole.
Therefore, stakes are too high and Bangladesh has no choice but to go for a free and fair election and approach the election not as a fancy desire but as a life and death issue and it is the people and not the politicians that must take the responsibility to realize this goal preferably, through democratic means, say by coming out in droves to vote and in the process, intimidate and blow away the perpetrators of violence by people power. Bangladeshis have done this before and they can do this again, with a different strategy.
*Adil Khan, former UN Senior policy manager and Professor of Development Practice, School of Social Sciences, University of Queensland, Australia and Habib Zafarullah, Adjunct professor, University of New England, Australia, the Guest Editors of the Special Issue, Whither Bangladesh of South Asia Journal