Economy, stability highlights of Awami League's second successive tenure

The Awami League, on Tuesday Jan 12, completes its second year in office in its second successive term - the longest spell of power that Bangladesh's largest party has ever had.

Moinul Hoque Chowdhuryand Syed Bashirbdnews24.com
Published : 12 Jan 2016, 03:14 AM
Updated : 12 Jan 2016, 12:43 PM

It has now been in power for seven years under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, who is both prime minister of the country and president of the Awami League (AL).

She headed the AL-led government for five years (1996-2001) before the BNP ousted it from power in the Eighth National Election.

Her father, the late Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, headed the Awami League government for three and half years from January 12, 1972 until his assassination on August 15, 1975.

Hasina's decisive leadership has been instrumental in the fight against terrorism, though Islamist extremists continue to murder secular bloggers, publishers, even foreigners in what the Awami League believes is a desperate attempt to destabilise the regime.

"But this will not work, we will complete our whole term in office," veteran Awami League leader Suranjit Sengupta recently said in Kolkata.

The Awami League went into its second term in office after the Jan 5, 2014, national elections, that the BNP derisively calls a 'voter less poll'. The BNP chose to stay out of the election when its demand for a neutral caretaker government to oversee the polls was rejected.

The AL managed to strike an unusual understanding with the Jatiya Party, which is both the leading Opposition and a partner in government.

As the security forces and police successfully controlled the orgy of opposition-inspired violence - first in the run-up to the 2014 polls and then in the first three months of 2015 - and stability returned to Bangladesh, the Awami League government began holding elections to such local bodies as city corporations and municipalities.

The new law stipulates that local bodies’ elections will be held on party lines.

The AL government also plans to hold Union Parishad polls soon.

Large-scale violence was unleashed across Bangladesh in the run down to the 2014 national election. This polling station at Chittagong’s Satkania was burnt down by opposition activists.

The opposition parties, especially the BNP, have alleged that these elections are a 'demonstration of money and muscle power' and have said that the people's mandate has been 'hijacked'.

Media reports pointed to rigging and booth capturing, stuffing of stamped ballot papers in boxes and large-scale intimidation in some areas.

But even foreign opinion surveys indicate the Awami League's stock has improved since the Jan 2014 polls, when its leadership looked confused and its activists demoralised.

A survey by the US-based International Republican Institute conducted in June 2015 found that ‘despite a continuing partisan divide on electoral issues, the Awami League had gained support among a majority of Bangladeshi respondents'.

The poll results also indicated positive public feelings about Bangladesh's current economic position and found much optimism about the country's economic future.

The local body polls, however, reinforced the Awami League's grip on the grassroots, though BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia claims her party will win any elections if they are held fairly.

Split

Now the BNP is crying foul and blaming the Awami League for trying to split the party and the 20-Party alliance it leads.

BNP Acting Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir alleged that the Awami League was 'politically bankrupt' and hence was resorting to dirty tricks after the Islami Oikyo Jote leaders said they were withdrawing from the alliance.

AL’s Suranjit Sengupta said BNP was bankrupt instead and blamed the party's present crisis on Khaleda and her son Tarique Rahman's decision to boycott the 2014 polls.

Smaller rifts led to BNP leaders like Nazmul Huda leaving the party to float new organisations, but inner-party dissidence is equally sharp in the Awami League.

That became evident during the municipal polls when a large number of both AL and BNP dissidents joined the hustings as independent candidates.

The Awami League had to threaten expulsion to get many of them to step down from the contest.

Economy

It is the economy which the Awami League showcases as its biggest success. Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith presented an ambitious budget with claims that the economy could grow at more than 7 percent per annum.

Global organisations like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank had initial reservations, primarily because of threats of violence and a consequent  adverse fallout on political stability.

But the World Bank has revised its projections for 2015-16 and says Bangladesh's GDP may grow at 6.7 percent this year.

Another feather in the cap for the Awami League government is the launching of the Padma Bridge project with Bangladesh's own resources after the party returned to power in 2014.

Much of the approach work has already been completed and the party leadership is optimistic about completing the project by the time it faces the next election three years from now.

The 6.15-km railroad bridge, which will link 21 districts of southern Bangladesh with the capital command zone, is expected to boost Bangladesh's GDP growth by 1 percent per annum.

Work on a new deep sea port at Matarbarhi is slated to start soon while negotiations with China on another deep sea port at Sonadia have been stalled but not called off.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina flagged off the main structure work of Padma Bridge on Dec 12, 2015, the largest ever self-financed project by Bangladesh.

The Awami League's focus on hugely boosting development, especially infrastructure, and playing into the new politics of regional connectivity are all seen as positives for Bangladesh’s future economic growth even as traditional sectors like garments and labour exports continue to grow and raise the country's foreign exchange reserves to new heights.

Corruption remains an issue, as the IRI survey indicated.

The government seems to have toughened laws to check money laundering, though many believe the problem is turning into a long-term menace for the national economy and must be checked now before it is too late.

While Bangladesh's working class seems to repose its faith in the country, sending home millions of hard earned dollars, its tiny corrupt elite seems busy siphoning off substantial sums of ill-gotten wealth.

Trade and industry seem relieved at the return of political stability, though foreign investment is yet to pick up momentum.

But after favourable projections by such bodies as the World Bank, it just might.

The feeling across the country that the economy can only get better will doubtlessly help the Awami League in consolidating its grip on power.

But the key to political legitimacy is the Election Commission's ability to hold fair elections in future with the Awami League in power and the party's own ability to purge corrupt and self-seeking elements and return to the idealism and spirit of sacrifice evident during the 1971 Liberation War.

The war crimes trials have helped trigger a nationalist surge, a return to the spirit of 1971, what with a tough response to Pakistan's criticism of the trial verdicts.

Two Pakistani diplomats, believed to be ISI case officers, had to be withdrawn by Islamabad under much pressure from Dhaka and the seizure of a huge amount of fake currency only reinforced intelligence reports that the jihadists were funded by huge doses of fake currency by the ISI.

So, even as India is trying to restart its dialogue with Pakistan, Bangladesh is threatening to 'review' its relations with it.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher