State power being used to amass wealth: Rehman Sobhan

Centre for Policy Dialogue chairman and eminent economist Rehman Sobhan speaks at the 7th SANEM Annual Economists’ Conference (SAEC) organised by the private research organisation South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (SANEM) in Dhaka on 24 February 2024Prothom Alo

The system of political parties is changing to stay in power, and questions also arise on whether politics is going to be a dominant party state system or one-person rule system, or whether any political party exists in the true sense or whether people of different professions give preference to political dynasties.

Overall, the ideology of political parties is weakening and change is taking place in the political system.

Speakers made these observations during the morning season of the 7th SANEM Annual Economists’ Conference (SAEC) organised by the private research organisation South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (SANEM) on Saturday. The three-day event ends on Sunday.

Professor Rounaq Jahan, a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), presided over this session titled "The Emergence and Rise and Rise of the Dominant Party State in Bangladesh: What are the Consequences for Democracy and Development?" while CPD chairman and eminent economist Rehman Sobhan was present as the special guest and researcher Mirza M Hassan presented the keynote paper.

Use of politics to amass wealth

Professor Rehman Sobhan highlighted the entry of businesspeople into politics, wakening state agencies and defaulted loans. He said a sect of businesspeople use state power to accumulate wealth. The market syndication system arises under political patronisation. Politically privileged businesspeople take advantage of loan default.

Being loan defaulters have been a model nowadays. Loans can be paid without interest, and this is pushing them ahead in the competition in markets.

According to Rehman Sobhan, politics plays an important role in business and nowadays business requires political power. State agencies like election commission, Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), and National Board of Revenue (NBR) have become weak.

Laws do not apply to everyone equally, as well as are used against slected people. Political connection fixes all these. And, such a situation is very dangerous for the desire for the country’s development.

BNP and Awami League came to power alternately through two parliamentary elections in 1991 and 1996, and multiparty democracy was established through this, and at that time, elections under the caretaker government earned praise from foreign nations.

Political system is changing

Mirza M Hasan in his keynote paper said the politics of Bangladesh is shifting to the dominant party state. Is Bangladesh turning into a single-party state?

He said, “Election will be held, but I will not lose –nothing can be more comfortable to politicians than this feeling, and this is happening in Bangladesh. People holding offices keep an eye on two things; one is political party and another is civil society. But, this is not a problem in the existing circumstance. Another thing is a geopolitical issue, and the ruling Awami League has tackled this well.”

The support of the BNP was internationally dependent entirely, but the BNP could not do anything with local support. The ruling tried to split the BNP, and if the BNP can be divided, then Bangladesh will become an authoritarian dominant party state like Singapore. Not only economic legitimacy but also democratic legitimacy is necessary to stay in power.

Mirza M Hasan highlighted another side.

He said people are more interested in whether commodity prices increase or how much social security increases.

He also criticised civil society members saying the civil society of this country is more interested in human rights and the rule of law but they do not step forward on issues related to ensuring the basic rights of poor people.

Professor Rounaq Jahan delivered the introductory speech. She said questions also arose on whether politics is going to be a dominant party state system of the influential party or one-person rule system, or any political party exists in a true sense, or whether people of different professions are giving preference to political dynasties. The ideology of all political parties is apparently weakening.

Regarding the victory of a large number of independent lawmakers in the 7 January general election, Rounaq Jahan said the ruling party did not have control inside the party due to the internal feud, which is why independent candidates were allowed to contest the election from a mindset that ‘it is better to let them go.”

Dhaka University teacher and economist MM Akash said the competition between two political parties has gone away since 2014, and Awami League became successful on geopolitical issues and built the Padma Bridge with the help of China. The US cannot do anything even if they want.

Bureaucrats have become more powerful than politicians, and elections cannot be won without the bureaucrats while business tycoons determine who will be the governor of Bangladesh Bank, he added.

Ashikur Rahman, a researcher at Policy Research Institute (PRI), said, “Why could we not uphold democracy even after four good elections between 1991 and 2008? This happened because of the ‘winner takes all’ policy.

Awami League won 62 constituencies in 2001 securing 40 per cent of votes while BNP got only 32 seats in 2008 bagging 30 per cent of votes.”