Published: Thursday, May 9, 2013

Italy and Bangladesh: The crisis of the political classes

AS April ended something happened in Italy which might seem to hold out a beacon of hope for Bangladesh. One may ask what is common between the two? Italy has been riven by both economic and political crises. By contrast, Bangladesh, though currently suffering from painful political strife and conflicts, is yet to face the pangs of world-recession and all-enveloping economic crisis. There is something that the two countries share in full measure — the lack of confidence the nations have developed in their political classes.

On Sunday, April 28, Italy ended its two months long political stalemate. Thanks to the active role played by the octogenarian President Giorgio Napolitano, something unprecedented happened. The centre-left took the initiative in coalescing with the centre-right. “Leftist political leader Enrico Letta forged a new Italian government Saturday in a coalition with former premier Silvia Berlusconi’s conservatives, an unusual alliance of bitter rivals that broke a two month political stalemate from inconclusive elections in the recession mired country.” This augured well for the distressed economy of the country. As Reuters reported on April 29, “investors welcomed on Monday the formation of a new government in Italy. Piling into the country’s assets and brushing off a warning that it might still need international aid to weather a deep economic crisis.”

Sovereign borrowing costs fell to their lowest since October, 2010 at a sale of €6 billion of five-year and 10-year bonds and blue chip shares rose 1.6% — outperforming other European markets.

In the context of the fact that the economically challenged country has contracted a hefty €2 trillion debt the possibility that despite political bridge building and confidence building it “may still need to seek a bailout.” There is still doubt about how long the government will endure and how strong is its commitment to solving the economic crisis.

The new prime minister, however, sent out assurance that his government would effect necessary economic reforms in Italy. The government would do this despite demands from conservative rightist coalition partners for reducing austerity measures. On the other hand, the new premier is also wooing his rightist partners by going easy on property taxes. The point is that Italy cannot afford to go it alone and abandon Europe. Europe cannot also do without Italy as it is the third largest economy in the Euro zone.

The fact of the matter is that most Italians, like the struggling Greeks and Spaniards, are tired and angry with the foolish failures of the “political classes.” They think that their present economic woes are products of the myopia and bickering and strife of the political parties. Leftist or rightist they are concerned, so the common people think, only with their struggles for political power and the fortune it would bring. They are not, according to the harassed people, concerned with welfare of the masses. The Italian civil society and assertive political groups like the “Seven Star Movement” are committed to resist what they call the “machination of the entire corrupt political class.”

Bangladesh is no Italy. It does not display the same symptoms of economic misery and distress despite its poverty and backwardness. Its economy has by and large escaped the merciless beatings of lingering world-wide recession.

As a World Bank report on Bangladesh Economy-2013 states: “In real terms Bangladesh’s economy has grown 5.8% a year since 1996 despite political instability, poor infrastructure, corruption, insufficient power supplies, and slow implementation of economic reforms. Bangladesh remains a poor, overpopulated, and inefficiently-governed nation. Although more than half of GDP is generated through the service sector, 45% of Bangladeshis are employed in the agriculture sector with rice as the single-most-important product. Bangladesh’s growth was resilient during the 2008-09 global financial crisis and recession. Garment exports, totaling $12.3 billion in FY 2009 and remittances from overseas Bangladeshis, totaling $11 billion in FY 2010, accounted for almost 12% of GDP.

In spite of this generally not very disappointing scenario, the evolving and existing political situation threatens the economic stability of the country and makes its future grim. The major political forces represented by ruling Bangladesh Awami League and its allies in the Mohajote (grand alliance) and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its 18-party allies are locked in a struggle for power, or so the common people think. Gradually worsening inflation is sending the prices of daily essentials high. Increasing unemployment creates new challenges for millions of hapless youths. Energy crisis has resulted in the sky- rocketing of price of power. Electricity and gas are becoming scarce and beyond the reach of the common man because of what is perceived by people as utter mismanagement of the authorities concerned.

The banking sector has suffered repeated blows because of mismanagement, corruption and fraud. Share market faced a veritable avalanche. Share price fell to the lowest, making the stock market shaky. There have been allegations that crony capitalism and partisanship, and political patronage of henchman by powers that be are at the root of these unprecedented crisis.

The foreign aid situation became disappointing as charges of corruption by important donors as the World Bank reduced the flow of aid and loan in several important projects. The charges of corruption at high places tarnish the image of the country in the world. In this condition of gathering economic gloom, political unrest and conflict have worsened matters. Investors’ confidence in Bangladesh is eroding, making the economic future more uncertain.

Political settlement on the question of caretaker government during the forthcoming national election seems to have divided the nation further, already riven by political rivalry between two principal political forces. The ruling party and its allies are seemingly unflinching in their commitment to preside over the election as interim government. The opposition BNP and its allies resolutely stick to their demand for non-partisan and neutral caretaker government to oversee the election. Recently, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced her desire to enter into a much awaited dialogue with the opposition on the question of “interim government,” but doubt and uncertainties cloud the situation as the opposition rejected the offer for unconditional talks. The BNP is demanding more specific clarification and is unyielding in its demand.

Thus, the political scenario is complex and uncertain. It is complicated by rise of forces in the name of Islam insisting the government concede to their orthodox demands. Alongside, the unprecedented movement by avowedly non-political platform Hefajat-e-Islam, and the violent movement by the Jamaat-Shibir to resist the trial of its leaders for crimes against humanity have made the situation even more complex and dangerous.

In this scenario, the responsibility of the Bangladeshi political classes is unprecedentedly heavy. They have to be prepared to face the challenge of history at a turning point. Their Italian counterparts have shown that the seemingly impossible can be done. The liberals, centre-left and centre-right there have dared defend the bad against the worse. Can’t our political classes take a lesson from them and meet the challenge of stormy time with skill and maturity?

The writer, founder Chairman of Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB) and Editor quarterly “Asian Affairs” is a former teacher of Political Science of Dhaka University, former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) and former non-partisan technocrat cabinet minister of Bangladesh.