Sunday, July 14, 2013

After Awami League has met its Gazipur

It was inevitable. After its defeat in four big city corporation elections, ruling Awami League (AL) has been humiliated in Gazipur, otherwise known as its own turf. In the electioneering days, the AL leaders quite vociferously called the city the party’s second bastion after Gopalganj, the hometown of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The margin of votes by which the rather clean AL-backed candidate has been defeated clearly indicates the party’s declining popularity. There’s no denying that its grassroots now stand humiliated and demoralised, especially at a time when the general election is only less than six months away.
Given the trend the five city polls have set, it will be difficult for the party, impossible almost, to return to power in the national election, if its leadership does not introspect and show brinkmanship. While doing so, it will find that, the government has created many issues that are impossible to handle in less than 180 days. And after the election schedule, supposed to be declared in September, the AL might find the administration act in a not-so-friendly way.
It is indeed surprising the way the AL rank and file has expressed shock and disbelief after the electoral tsunami. The disaster has always been looming large, and its ferocity could always be forecasted. The AL government has strings of achievements to boast, but the way proverbial bad apples spoil the whole bunch, the party’s success stories are now forgotten by the ordinary voters thanks to some Awami Leaguers’ unbridled corruption and its student wing’s thuggery and gangsterism.

The results suggest a steep fall in popularity and it is time the AL arrests it to keep the casualty to the bare minimum. The best move would have been to dissolve the parliament in February to hold an early election under a caretaker government. It could have given the party a chance to bag the fruit of the Shahbag movement. It is indeed sad that Shahbag has become a skeleton of its previous self and a Prothom Alo survey says that despite the front-page treatment it has received during its helicon days, it has not been able to take its message to the ordinary masses. No chance there.
So, an early election is not a possibility. The war crimes trial verdict and its execution might not save the day for other bigger issues have now overshadowed it. The government should invite the main opposition to a dialogue to settle the issue of the caretaker government. Meanwhile it must take some face saving measures to regain the level of popularity it had enjoyed only four and a half years ago. The AL leadership might not like him, but Professor Muhammad Yunus is hugely popular among ordinary Bangladeshis, especially the Grameen’s borrowers, which amount to 900,000 poor Bangladeshi women. Splitting their bank will not surely go down well with them. As the first step to restore sanity, the government can sit with Yunus to find a way to resolve the Grameen crisis.
Then there is the albatross round the AL’s neck–the Padma Bridge. For the party, what could have been a jewel in the crown has turned into a thorn in the flesh. The AL leadership’s denial of corruption and comparing it with Bangabandhu’s uncompromising stance against imperialism (Sheikh Hasina’s budget speech) will not help any of the parties involved. There’s only one person’s alleged involvement in the scam that has prompted the World Bank (WB) to show its back to the bridge’s finance, and that person and his feelings should not come before national interest. The government should sit with the WB again and do the needful to bring it back to the project.
Besides the collapse of Rana Plaza, alleged abduction of labour leader Aminul and Bangladesh’s labour law has contributed the most to the suspension of the GSP facility that Bangladesh used to enjoy in the US market. Instead of nabbing the culprits or amending the law, the government has pursued a strange policy according to which it blamed everyone but the real culprits for GSP suspension. Now that the EU has told Bangladesh that the latter should not take its GSP for granted, the government should do everything to retain the GSP facility in the European market.

And on top of it all, the AL must immediately sit with the main opposition to find a way to hold an election that will be acceptable to all the parties. Holding a one-sided election with Gen HM Eshad’s Jatya Party is not a sane idea; neither is inviting an unconstitutional power, the apprehension of which former President Baddruddoza has expressed the other day.
AL has led Bangladesh towards its glorious independence. Whim and arrogance is unbecoming of the party that has for years fought military dictatorship to uphold people’s right to vote. AL leadership’s future decisions should reflect its august past. The party, like the country is at a crossroads; it is a time when a single political move can make or break.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Wonderboy and Wondergirls

Former President General (rtd) HM Ershad has an interesting record to his name. Once ousted, hardly any military dictator or his party has ever fared well in a free and fair election across the world. Ershad is an exception. In the election that was held after his ouster in a bloody mass upsurge, Ershad's Jatya Party (JP) won 35 seats. The former dictator, then imprisoned on an array of corruption charges, won all the five seats he contested, a feat he shared with only Khaleda Zia in the 1991 elections.

I have always been amazed the way Ershad runs his trade, and during the last caretaker government's term in office I interviewed the former military strongman. He lamented the fact that his party MP hopefuls were not allowed to work in the run up to the first election since the restoration of democracy in 1990. Strange it may sound, his allegations were true--JP faced an unofficial ban at that time, and Ershad's popularity was one of the reasons why Khaleda nodded to the idea of amending the constitution to reintroduce Westminster-style government.

It might be why Bangladesh's new constitution that brought back parliamentary form of democracy vests the Prime Minister with power that only a Mughal emperor can outmatch. Add to that is her absolute power in the party where she handpicks her presidium/central committee members. In the councils of both the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party it is Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia who were 'trusted' by the councillors with the responsibility of choosing members of both the parties' highest policymaking bodies.

The irony does not escape us: even though both the parties and their leaders talk about democracy in every breath they take, at heart and at home they remain all powerful autocrats. In the case of the BNP, it is not surprising at all for the party was founded at the height of General Zia's martial law. What is strange is the way the AL, the vanguard of our Liberation War, has started to entertain undemocratic practises in its fold. There's hardly any difference left now between the way the AL and the BNP are now run.    

There's however now denying that in Bangladesh politics both the ladies enjoy the status of minor deities. Is it because the electorate sees some kind of mother figure engrained in their collective consciousness? Hardly so. Hasina and Khaleda thrive for the same reason Ershad, after the fall of his autocratic rule, had garnered 11 percent votes. Ordinary Bangladeshis do not have options, their choice always shuffle back and forth between the two major parties because they were never presented with a viable alternative to the duopoly that the two ladies created in local politics.

Politics in Bangladesh has remained a messy affair; members of the civil society have always shied away from it. To make matters even more grievous, young leadership that both the parties' quasi-democratic rule is producing is heavily infected with corruption and gangsterism. Change is the order of the day. But when, and, more importantly, how? 

First published in The Daily Star on June 7, 2013