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Volume 4 Issue 1 | January 2009



Original Forum Editorial

Exit Strategies: The Voters Show the Way--Rehman Sobhan
The Quest for a Worthy Government-Shayan S. Khan
Whither Nationalist Politics?-- Jyoti Rahman
Why AL Won--Syeed Ahamed
Photo Feature: Special the world comes to Dhaka
Getting Beyond a Thousand Days-- Farid Bakht
Who Got Elected to the Ninth Parliament?-- Badiul Alam Majumdar
What Next?-- Tazeen M. Murshid
A Fortunate Khaleda Zia, A Fortunate Bangladesh -- Rumi Ahmed
Happily Ever After? -- Afsan Chowdhury
Parliamentary Ethics -- Md. Ali Ashraf
Photo/Month-- Month in Frame


Forum Home


The Quest for a Worthy Government

Shayan S. Khan

The consolidation and subsequent retention of power has historically proved an altogether more difficult task for Bangladeshi political parties than gaining it. It has given rise to the theory that the Bangladeshi electorate is overcome by some kind of "anti-incumbent" tendency each time they go to vote.

It is a theory that stands the test statistically, since a new government has indeed been elected in each of the elections since 1991, but it is one that grossly undermines the weight of the people's verdict.

Closer to the truth, each of these verdicts since 1991, except for the very first one, has been a verdict against malgovernance. Each time, we may have lacked a necessarily better alternative, but that does not mean we were going to in effect endorse the misdeeds of the last one by re-electing them. That would be defeatism tantamount to hopelessness. The democratic agenda however, cannot survive without hope.

So here we have the Awami League again, dressed in the grandest mandate we have yet handed to anyone. There is a fear doing the rounds that too much power has been vested in them, far too much considering the consequences the last time a government took oath with a two-thirds majority in parliament.

But without forgoing our vigilance, let us not wallow in negativity and hope that the resounding defeat that has been inflicted on that past government, and also the heavy defeat the Awami League themselves suffered in 2001, will have opened their eyes to the pitfalls of misusing this mandate.

For most people, it was plain to see that the general atmosphere surrounding December 29, 2008 lent itself to a victory for the Grand Alliance led by the League. The month was December, Koko's bank account was in the papers, and the public was running a very high election fever.

Anyone who knows of the advantage that accrues to the party that was not last in power from a high voter turnout and was out and about on the day knew which way the wind was blowing. I personally visited six of the constituencies in Dhaka and everywhere, in all the polling stations, the lines for the men stretched forever while the women's stretched a day longer.

The air was festive and succulent with a certain taste of victory. This holds true for everyone who voted, irrespective of whether their candidate was elected or not. After seven years, this nation forever enamoured by politics was having its say again, and clearly relishing the opportunity.

An opportunity they used to deliver their strongest verdict yet against corruption, militancy, malgovernance -- and in the biggest boldest letters -- the anti-liberation elements that have so regrettably infiltrated our body politic.

Iqbal Ahmed/ Driknews

It has taken some time, but finally we have come to realise that a vote cast in favour of men ideologically opposed to the birth of Bangladesh does not belong on these shores. In this, the contribution of our valiant Sector Commanders Forum as a resourceful and necessary point of inspiration cannot be underestimated. They remain winners always.

As is the custom, the losing side has made allegations of vote-rigging. Eventually, though, they will have to accept the result for what it is: a scathing indictment of their five years of misrule. They know as well as anyone else that their cries will be futile. Accepting the defeat and taking stock of their situation will be much better for them.

The BNP today is a bare skeleton of the party that swept to power in 2001. Their Young Turks have been put in their place, their old guard has gone missing, and Khaleda Zia looks spent, in no position to carry on the legacy of her late husband anymore. But the claims that they are finished are premature to say the least.

We will do well to note that they may have bagged less than a tenth of the seats in parliament, but they did gather almost a third of the popular vote. Their base remains strong. The latest delimitation of constituencies, as most things over the last two years, hurt them more.

But with judicious restructuring and meaningful reforms within the party, they can come back stronger in five years, which is a lifetime in Bangladeshi politics. Before they look that far ahead, though, they must take two immediate steps that have become necessary for their rehabilitation.

First and foremost, the BNP leadership must devise a strategy to unite all the different elements of the party that now lie scattered over the political landscape. Secondly, but just as importantly, they must sever their limiting ties with the Jamaat that has rendered them unrecognisable from the party of modern, pragmatic values in the first three elections since 1991. It is a relationship that has cost them their sense for the pulse of the nation, and confined them within a rigid, narrow agenda. In a democracy, that is the farthest you can get from a recipe for success.

The Awami League, on the other hand, is enjoying a watershed in its history. For long considered the people's party of Bangladesh, they now have a chance to establish themselves as our natural party of government. It will take a collective will, cool heads, and a calculated approach, which are not necessarily traits they have exhibited in abundance in the past, but then again, when was the last time the AL took the stage with so many young, new faces? Faces which resonated so strongly with the young, new faces that made up no less than 32% of the electorate this time.

The BNP may have been run ragged by events of the past two years, but credit must be given to the League for running a very effective, modern campaign that reaped the advantages they enjoyed in terms of the personnel available to them, favourable media coverage, and the relatively better position of their financial backers emerging from the chaos since 1/11.

They were far more sensitive to the day's call, and duly presented themselves as the party of new ideas. When the data becomes available, it is a fair bet that one will find they captured the lion's share of that large chunk of first-time voters.

As a result, they will take their seats in parliament carried there by the most informed votes yet cast in Bangladesh's chequered history of democracy, through an election in which the first visible signs of democracy maturing in these shores became apparent.

This election will serve as a worthy standard-bearer for the future, as will future regimes at the Election Commission have a worthy example to follow in the redoubtable A.T.M. Shamsul Huda and his administration.

The prerogative now lies with the AL and its allies to not let down a people that has time and again proved it is not averse to switching allegiances that don't give them their due. It is in their response to the mandate they have been given that the AL will have to prove themselves worthy of their coats.

Three criteria, in particular, will serve as the yardsticks for judging them, which if handled appropriately can hand them the much sought-after second term in succession that no Bangladeshi party has yet been able to garner.

The first of these, although not in any particular order, is the systematic corruption that has become endemic in our society. Let us not forget that the principal reason behind the first disruption of the democratic process in Bangladesh, from which we have now returned, was the rampant corruption that the last BNP government had engaged in, and increasingly now, one can see it was designed to ensure that such a corrupt regime did not take the reins of power again, that too in partnership with the Jamaat.

But it is not as if the government the AL led from 1996 to 2001 was a shining example of honesty and good will. If they are to hold on to power, they have to improve their record from that tenure considerably. And they must show they are serious about this by first of all making sure any elected MP with corruption charges still pending against him or her does not sit in the cabinet. And if they are to continue the anti-graft drive initiated by the caretaker

Amdadul Haque/ Driknews

government, they must make sure that it is not used as a political tool to bury the BNP even further while the perpetrators from their side get away with their crimes.

In order to root out corruption, or to at least decrease its incidence significantly, they must devise a more effective, holistic strategy that sets in motion the drivers of social change. This will involve the decentralisation of government agencies, reforms in the education sector (both in terms of curricula and inclusiveness), and the establishment of accountability.

By assuming power at a time when global oil prices have dropped over $100 in the space of three months, the AL will be inheriting an economy where prices are already going down. Sheikh Hasina and whoever will take office as finance minister must feel like celebrating the loan managers behind the US sub-prime mortgage crisis, the forerunner to what is now the global financial crisis, as heroes. Recession in America and western Europe has resulted in sharp falls in demand, so prices of most things around the world are coming down anyway.

No matter though, the AL can take office at this opportune time and take the credit too for prices that have actually been coming down in domestic markets since the second week of December. With much of the country living on very low incomes, inflation still reigns as the principal indicator of a government's economic performance.

But the AL government must remain alert to the longer-term effects that the global crisis will have on the Bangladeshi economy, especially its exports, and the true test of its mettle will lie in devising a development agenda that is localised, progressive and egalitarian.

The third criterion revisits the AL's principal failure from their last tenure in government. This is to do with the law-and-order situation, and includes crimes such as extortion, murder, racketeering, hijackings, robberies, etc. There can be no questioning that the incidence of these crimes spiralled out of control between 1996 and 2001, and unfortunately, many of the AL's leaders or their kin were involved as the guilty parties.

Their defeat in the 2001 elections can largely be put down to Sheikh Hasina being unable to rein in these elements within her party. This time, the good sign is that they have gotten rid of most of these criminals from their ranks. But if they take this issue seriously, they must go beyond and explore long-term strategies for ensuring juveniles don't fall through society's net into a life of crime and delinquency.

The AL election manifesto is an overambitious one, but one of their promises that if fulfilled will have a positive domino effect on a number of areas including this one is the one concerning mass education for all. One hopes it will receive the special attention it merits once the 9th Jatiya Sangsad is in session.

We live in a nation that has always been fascinated with politics. But even by our own high standards, interest in politics is riding the crest of a very potent wave at the moment. At least initially, expect high ratings for televised broadcasts of the JS sessions. In any case, I expect the incoming government to be subject to much more scrutiny than previous ones have been.

Prito Reza/ Driknews

What remains to be seen is how this renewed party takes to power. If they can rise to the challenge, such a huge majority will be extremely difficult to overturn for its opponents in five years' time. Governing well is not only in the people's interest, it is in their interest too. Three elected governments have plundered from this soil in the guise of its custodian. The time has now arrived for one that is worthy of it.

The choices before the AL are quite clearly laid out. Give the people of Bangladesh the government they deserve, and you can share in a long, fruitful partnership. Otherwise, be prepared to be unceremoniously driven out in five years. When it is time for their verdict, Bangladeshis don't resort to half-measures.

Shayan S. Khan is Operations Manager, CSR Centre.

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