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Predicament of landslide electoral victory

Abdur Rahman Chowdhury in Falls Church, Virginia, USA | January 12, 2019 00:00:00

The ruling Awami League scored a landslide victory in the last election. It won 259 seats in the house of 300. Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the principal opposition party, won six seats. Jatiya Party (JP), a component of the ruling coalition, secured 22 seats - and the remaining seats were taken by smaller parties. The leader of the coalition of the opposition parties Dr. Kamal Hossain dismissed the electoral exercise alleging widespread malpractices by the acolytes of the ruling party. Dr. Hossain accused the Election Commission for its failure to conduct a credible election and demanded a fresh election under a neutral authority.

The victory of the Awami League in the election was almost certain - but a landslide victory was not expected. Since coming to power in 2009, Prime Minister Hasina presided over a growing economy marked by increased export of readymade garments, higher agricultural products and higher remittance from workers in the Middle East. There has been a spectacular improvement in agriculture and the country has achieved almost self-sufficiency in food production. In the recent past, the government launched several development projects, including a mega bridge project over the mighty river Padma that bisects the country into two regions. The bridge, scheduled to be completed in two years, will bring about remarkable improvement linking the southern region with the capital Dhaka.

The BNP rotated power with the Awami League since parliamentary democracy was restored in 1991. It won majority seats in parliament thrice and served two full terms in the government. It had, at any given time, about 30 per cent electorates in its favour. Its debacle in this election has been unexpected though it was presumed that BNP would not secure majority seats in parliament.

The United Front leaders complained that in many instances, the Election Commission failed to ensure "level playing field" to their candidates. Even during the election period its workers were not able to campaign freely as they feared harassment at the hands of law enforcing agencies. Some of the opposition candidates received clearances from the superior court to participate in the election five days prior to polling date, making it impossible for them to campaign.

Leaving aside the controversy over the merit of the election, i.e. how transparent the electoral exercise was and whether people had liberty to vote according to their choice, it is now evident that the new government under the stewardship of Sheikh Hasina would govern the country for another term. One of the fundamental questions that now arises is, given the configuration of the new parliament, how effective it would be in making the government accountable.

JP which participated in the election with its own symbol, albeit following seat adjustment with the Awami League, seemed avaricious to be a partner of the government. In the last parliament, JP was part of the government and at the same time it played the role of a moribund opposition. Its leader became a special envoy of the government while his spouse did an ornamental role of the leader of the opposition. Some of its members served as ministers in the cabinet. This farcical role of JP eroded the dignity of the legislature. Since JP members haven't been accommodated in the new cabinet, it will have to sit in the opposition. But it fatally compromised its ability to hold the government accountable in parliament.

It is often said that in parliamentary democracy the majority rules at the consent of the minority and parliament is the forum where discussions on all issues take place. It is, however, undeniable that parliament has not functioned effectively in the country since parliamentary system was reinstated in 1991. The opposition abstained from attending the sessions and the government sidelined parliament in taking major decisions including concluding agreements with foreign countries. There is no indication that the eleventh parliament would be more effective in making the government accountable.

In absence of the opposition inside and outside parliament, there would be no entity to call in question the actions or policies of the government. To circumvent this void, the prime minister may consider constituting a group of individuals from former bureaucrats, educationists, journalists and judges, preferably having no political affiliations, and grant them audience at regular intervals. This will substitute, to some extent, the opposition in parliament and enable the government to get feedback on the shortcomings of its actions and policies.

The economy has shown resilience notwithstanding natural calamities in 2017. It maintained a steady growth of over 6.0 per cent. But there has been a concern that the dividends of economic uplift remained concentrated in the urban elites. About 30 million people are still considered living in poverty. The government should seriously consider putting in place safety net programme to serve the poor families, especially in rural areas.

In the education sector, enrolment has vastly increased, and female education has also expanded. But there has been a serious concern on the quality of education. The erosion of quality has not taken place overnight. The government should task a high-powered committee to overhaul primary and secondary-level education. Thousands of students are graduating from the universities every year and adding up to the educated workforce, but employment opportunities are limited. This will pose a major challenge to the government.

The situation in the health sector is not much different, particularly in the rural areas. The infrastructure is there but lack of equipment and absence of medical staff appear to be the major impediment of rural health service. People having low income in rural areas cannot afford to visit hospitals in the district towns and they are denied of healthcare. It needs urgent attention of the government. An oversight on the attendance of the medical staff and functioning of Health Centres should be augmented.

The Prime Minister has rightly acknowledged that the landslide victory has placed higher expectation of the people on her. That brings "good governance" to the centre of discourse. The government should revise the code of conduct of the law-enforcing agencies putting an end to arrests/detention without lawful orders of the court, prohibition of torture in police custody and cessation of harassment by police personnel.

Good governance implies strengthening of democratic institutions including Anti Corruption Commissionc (ACC), Election Commission (EC) and the judiciary. These institutions, in turn, must strive to earn the confidence of the people.

In absence of the opposition party, the media remains the single entity to draw the attention of the government on its shortcomings. The government should engage with the press and avoid applying any law that would threaten the freedom of the press. It should get the space it deserves.

BNP and its allies have listed a number of irregularities in the election. It also complained about voter fraud and intimidation by the law-enforcing agencies and Awami League activists. The prime minister should take these allegations seriously and task a Judicial Commission to investigate. The Commission's report, once submitted, should be made public.

Now that the Prime Minister has got another term to govern, she should initiate a process of political reconciliation. The prime minister should consider granting a general amnesty to those who have been in jail for months for political reasons and withdraw cases against the leaders and workers of the opposition parties. The nation should be united to make the country strong. Abomination should be left behind to let the nation march ahead.

Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.


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