NEWSLINE

Seeking election mandate a budget mandate?

Khawaza Main Uddin | Update:

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina (R) and finance minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith just before the budget session in Parliament on 7 June. Photo: PIDMr AMA Muhith is confident, the people of Bangladesh will once again present their mandate to “us”. This “us” used in the finance minister’s annual financial statement on 7 June, obviously refers to the party he represents as a member of parliament.

The very next day, at a formal press conference, he further cleared his position: “I am an important member of a political party. So, it is only natural that the budget will be an election-centric budget.”

True, but he is a minister of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, not the Awami League, the moment he takes oath at the president’s house Bangabhaban, not at Bangabandhu Avenue party office.

And when a finance minister makes demand for grants for running the government, it is made, not to the concrete of the Louis I Kahn-designed imposing structure, but to the people through the House. Isn’t that so?

There is criticism - always and everywhere - about measures taken in the budget in an election year and in Bangladesh, it is called ‘electioneering budget’.

That might not be a bad thing, if budgetary proposals are welfare-oriented, though it is often aimed not only at appeasing the voters but also bribing a few power blocks and key political constituencies.

However, placing his and current AL government’s last budget, Mr Muhith went beyond the custom: “I am confident, the people will stand by us by offering another mandate for implementing Vision 2041, as they did while taking forward the agenda of Vision 2021.”

There is an element of confusion in his statement as to whether he is seeking votes for his party or he just reminded all of the consistency of the regime in terms of securing public mandate in a manner akin to that of Khulna City Corporation elections on 15 May.

In addition to submitting annual income and expenditure reports, the finance minister is supposed to issue “policy statement” broadly containing underlying assumptions of macroeconomic situation, strategic priorities and sources of local and foreign funding should he comply with the provision (article 11) of Budget Management Act formulated in his time - 2009.

It’s not clear either how he perceives the constitutional provision relating to the annual financial statement. Article 89 (2) of the constitution says: “…Parliament shall have power to assent to or to refuse to assent to any demand, or to assent to it subject to a reduction of the amount specified therein.”

So, the question arises as to whether the parliament can approve Mr Muhith’s proposition of “another mandate” since it is raised there. And that too in a parliament, more than half members of which were elected without any vote cast and the rest in one-sided ballot with an extremely poor turnout!

If US president Donald Trump can talk about pardoning himself for possible election-time collusion with Russia, why can’t the custodian of the national exchequer suggest that a parliament may offer a mandate for constitution of another parliament!

Mr Muhith emphatically mentioned in budget speech about the AL’s popular mandate through “a free and fair election in 2009” but uttered not a single word about the controversial 2014 election that brought his party back to power.

He himself holds the record of authoring the annual budget 12 times, two of which during the martial law of HM Ershad, now special emissary of the prime minister. More than half (five budgets since 2014, plus earlier two) of his tenure as the finance minister is marked by dictatorial or pseudo-democratic system of governance.

Is it then his turn that he proved in the budget statement, to reward what the bureaucrat-turned-minister received from the political elements for choosing him as a key minister?

Of course, gratitude is a very good human attribute and the finance minister could have spelled out a few lines about free and fair election, apart from making allocations for the purpose, to thank the Bangladesh people one last time and make his exit memorable to the voters.

By saying “us” and addressing the people as “they”, Mr Muhith hinted at divisive policy, which is scary to all those who admire peace, prosperity and pluralist system in the country.

Standing on the floor of a parliament where both the ruling and the opposition parties are conspicuously partners in the same government, Mr Muhith tried to dictate the terms of the next ruling parties as well. He asked them to promote district governments that he himself failed to do. “This agenda (district governments) should be taken up for implementation immediately after next election while all participating parties should articulate their concept and programmes in election manifesto.”

Thus he entered the Ershad cabinet (through the backdoor) in 1982, thus he goes (amid uncertainty about fair and participatory elections), to the finishing line in 2018!

 

* Khawaza Main Uddin is a journalist. He can be contacted at khawaza@gmail.com

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