As Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections scheduled for December this year draw nearer, the questions that will simmer in the political arena are - will the election be fair, free of rigging and participatory? Or, as in 2014, will the ruling alliance succumb to the Kautiliyan cunning of a preset farcical election?
After the revival of democracy through the 1991 parliamentary elections, the incumbent parties were never reelected to power in the subsequent national polls under interim and caretaker governments. After all, the popularity of ruling parties fast recedes under the deluge of corruption and capital flight.
With the BNP-led alliance boycotting the 2014 elections, the Mahajote or the grand alliance sailed to the helm of power once again in a one-sided election. The BNP is not likely to adopt such a suicidal strategy this time.
So the question that looms large is, if the coming election is free and fair, will the Awami League be able to win? After all, it is hard for the people to swallow the corruption and blatant looting of capital which has continued over the past nine years. The prevalence of corruption and misrule is glaringly present, while memories of the corruption carried out during the 2001-2006 rule of the BNP-Jamaat alliance has faded from public memory.
Even though Bangladesh’s achievements over the past nine years has steadily changed Bangladesh’s past negative image, it is a matter of question whether the Awami League will be able to reap the benefits of this in the shape of an election victory.
There are certain pundits who seem to think the fair and credible elections can take second place to continuity of development achievements. Mahathir Mohammad is used as an example, where democracy was overridden by Malaysia’s development continuity.
However, during Mahathir’s time, the elections were not rigged. Many are critical of Mahathir’s treatment of his one-time political associate Anwar Ibrahim, but it must also be kept in mind that Anwar Ibrahim’s proximity with the US laid at the crux of the problem. It is because Mahathir stood up against the US, IMF and World Bank’s ‘Washington consensus’ that Malaysia managed to avoid an economic meltdown.
Those who theorise that the present government should be brought to power again in the 2018 election by any means for the sake of development, are actually doing prime minister Sheikh Hasina a great disservice. During the rule of Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s GNI (gross national income) growth crossed 7.5 per cent.
However, most of this has simply been channeled to political corruption, bureaucratic corruption and capital flight. The key to Sheikh Hasina being reelected through a fair and credible election, is to prove to the people that she indeed makes no compromise when it comes to corruption and capital flight.
There are eight months left before the election. If she wants, she can build up a strong resistance against corruption in these eight months. She can prove to the people that she really has ‘zero tolerance’ towards corruption by rejecting any corrupt candidate from nominations in the coming election. The people will then b able to evaluate the economic achievements of her rule. Another farcical election in 2018 will simply push the nation to the brink of another crisis.
It should be kept in mind that Bangladesh’s state character remains marginal capitalistic, bureaucratic and capital-extorting. It is this character of the state that has kept development on the lower rung. The spirit of Bangladesh’s independence struggle and blood-stained liberation was to change this state character and transform this into a people’s republic of Bangladesh. That is why four fundamental pillars had been determined for the state - Bangali nationalism, democracy, secularism and socialism.
After the bloody killings of 1975 and the subsequent unconstitutional military rules, in 2011 these four pillars were reinstated in the constitution. It is now vital to pull the nation out of the crisis of less development and make it a truly democratic state. Unless democracy is firmly rooted, how can this be a ‘people’s republic of Bangladesh’? Democracy will accelerate development. It is not acceptable that development will be used as an excuse to reduce democratic elections to a farce.
After the 1975 coup, Bangladesh adopted the Pakistan-style development strategy. As a result, the growth of capital has been more trade-oriented and so even though banks are quite liberal in providing industrial loans, most of the capital is siphoned off abroad.
As a least developed country, Bangladesh in the last 25 years of the 20th century not only became a neo-colony and lost its economic sovereignty, but its political sovereignty was in name only. In 1981-82, foreign loans and grants made up 13.7 per cent of the GDP. In 2017, dependence on foreign loans and grants decreased to only 2 per cent of the GDP.
Then again, it is the bureaucratic character of the state that has institutionalised corruption in this country. In countries where state power is used by the rulers, their kin, ruling party leaders and activists as well as favoured businesspersons as a tool to loot capital, under-development takes firm root. This is termed as ‘crony capitalism’. Over the past 47 years, none of the governments have been free of such cronyism.
The dangerous level of inequity in income and distribution of wealth in the country is not even being admitted. There is still time to usher in an equitable society by adopting a strategy of non-discriminatory growth. The keys to such a strategy are adopting a people-oriented agricultural policy, reducing discrimination in the education system, providing the poor with modern health services, ensuring easy public access to bank loans, and strengthening social security nets.
Above all, redistribution of income must be the main mission of the state. Though it may seem that the system of elected government has been prevailing through 1991-2018, in actuality the state character underwent a change in 2014. The main challenge faced by the nation today is ensure a representative election-based democracy, no matter how faulty it may be, and also to ensure accountability to the people.
Development and democracy are complementary. Dubious attempts to place development as an alternative to democracy are absurd.
*Moinul Islam, PhD, is a UGC professor of economics at Chittagong University. This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir