Subir Bhaumik
Former BBC correspondent based in Kolkata with 37 years in journalism and expert on India 'S East and Northeast, Bangladesh and Myanmar
Stories by Subir Bhaumik
 29 Jan, 2019

‘Development Miracle’ might help Hasina sail through

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has held up Bangladesh’s economic and social development as a “role model” for developing nations. A recent study by Yasuyuki Sawada, chief economist of Asian Development Bank and Japanese economist Naohira Kitana who authored book 'Economic and Social Development of Bangladesh : Miracles and Challenges' calls it a “miracle”.Party loyalists are confident that voters will respond favourably to Sheikh Hasina’s track record in economic and social development, especially on women’s empowerment. “Bangladesh is a young nation, its youth are a big part of our population,” says Tanmoy Ahmed of the Bangladesh Awami League’s Centre for Research and Innovation (CRI). “Over 23 million out of the 100 million plus electorate are in the 18-28 age group. They voted for the Awami League overwhelmingly in the December 2008 polls. Even in the January 2014 polls boycotted by the Opposition, they had turned up in good numbers”.A GDP that achieved 7.1 per cent growth last year and has exceeded six per cent growth for two decades, lifting 50 million people out of extreme poverty and making Bangladesh likely to be one of the world’s three fastest growing economies in the next few years, according to auditing and consulting firm PriceWaterhouse Coopers.This growth figure is only slightly behind that of Vietnam and big brother neighbour India. But on social and human development numbers, Bangladesh is far ahead of India on parameters like life expectancy (72 against India’s 66) and female empowerment (enrolment of girls in primary schools at 94 percent is higher than boys), according to UNDP.It is also expected to overtake India in growth (7.2 percent now) in the current year, according to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. And an HSBC report says Bangladesh is likely to be the biggest mover in the global gross domestic product rankings in 2030, becoming the 26th largest economy in the world from 42nd now. Projections put real GDP growth at 7.1 per cent per year up to 2030, the highest among the 75 countries included in the report, making it a $700 billion economy in 2030 from $300 billion now. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was justifiably boastful when she said, “We are on course to be a middle-income country by 2021, on the 50th anniversary of our Republic”.Yet, for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party, this economic and social “miracle” she has overseen during her 10-year tenure of South Asia’s youngest nation may not by itself be enough to ensure victory in the December 30 parliamentary polls, say analysts.“The Awami League has to battle considerable anti-incumbency, serious charges of corruption at high places, and the overload of aspirations,” said Shamsul Arefin, author of a book on Bangladesh elections. “About 4000 party leaders are vying for nominations to the 300 parliament seats. Those who are denied party nomination may turn against the official candidates. The Awami League leadership must firmly tackle factionalism, much depends on it”. But for the first time in ten years, the Awami League will face a united Opposition determined to prevent a hattrick for the ruling party. A coalition of smaller parties like Bikalpa Dhara (led by former President Badruddoza Choudhury) and Gana Forum (led by former Awami League foreign minister Kamal Hossain) have teamed up in a broader coalition with the main opposition alliance led by Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), with its main ally, the pro-Pakistan and Islamic hardline Jamaat-e-Islamic. However, Jamaat-e-Islamic having been de-registered by the Election Commission, has agreed to field its candidates on the BNP’s election symbol. A scenario not all parties in this opposition alliance are happy with. “The people are desperate for a change, fed up of corruption and high handedness of the Awami League government,” claimed BNP leader Moudud Ahmed. “This will be reflected in the hustings”. Moudud Ahmed is also demanding greater international supervision of the electoral process. The Awami League, not surprisingly, is dismissive of the opposition coalition, confident that its achievements will swing the polls in their favour for a record third time. “The smaller parties want nearly half the seats. That will cause tensions,” said top Awami League leader even as he admitted that seat sharing with allies is an issue for the Awami League as well, with negotiations with former president H M Ershad’s Jatiya Party still incomplete. But the Awami League is pinning its hopes on voters' favourable reaction to Hasina’s appeal to ensure continuity in the development process and in the battle against Islamist radicalism. While her foreign policy success in balancing India and China, the West and the Islamic world has added to her image as a mature leader, it is her impressive domestic record that will be the focus of her campaign. Especially her decision to construct the $ 3.9 billion, 6.5-kilometre rail cum road bridge on the massive Padma River using internal resources. Even her most ardent supporters were apprehensive of undertaking such a massive project all on their own, but the bridge is more than halfway across and scheduled to open for traffic next year. Hasina, daughter of the country’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who undertook this huge project after rejecting the World Bank's funding offer because of unacceptable terms, is being touted as a big boost to national pride. “Henry Kissinger (US secretary of state in 1971) called us a basket case,” recalled columnist Haroon Habib, who was part of the Mukti Bahini guerrilla force in the 1971 war of independence. “Now we can bridge the Padma river with our own resources, which is no mean achievement.” The economic benefits from the bridge will also be considerable, according to economist Shahdul Alam. “This will connect the Dhaka capital region to 21 southern districts and boost our GDP by another 1.5 per cent,” said Alam. Though elections are a month away, an opinion poll by US based International Republican Institute (IRI) gave Hasina high approval ratings, 66 percent, against her main rival, BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia (21 percent). More than 60 percent of respondents said the country is headed in the right direction. “If Bangladesh had a presidential system, Hasina would be a clear winner,” said columnist Sukharanjan Dasgupta. “But it has a first-past-the post parliamentary system, so the leader’s personal popularity alone may not be enough”. (EOM)

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‘Development Miracle’ might help Hasina sail through

 07 Dec, 2018

Bangladesh Election Commission rejects nominations of ‘criminal’ candidates; Opposition cries foul

Bangladesh is hurtling towards another acrimonious and ugly parliamentary election after its Election Commission (EC) rejecting nominations of candidates with criminal background. This rejection is based on a recent order by the Bangladesh High Court, which ruled that a person jailed for more than two years cannot contest polls unless a minimum of five years has passed since the completion of the candidate’s sentence.The November 27 ruling has come as a blow particularly to candidates of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) who were involved in the 2014 violence that broke out in the country over that year’s parliamentary polls. The BNP has been crying foul, alleging mischief by the ruling dispensation.The Awami League-led government, however, says the EC rejected certain nominations by “strictly observing legal provisions”. A statement put out on behalf of the government read: “These rejections have nothing to do with suppression …[those] rejected had been convicted of criminal charges...” “Courts are independent, and the EC has to work within the law, which is just taking its course. In fact, countries like India have a provision for preventing convicted criminals from contesting polls,” reiterated Awami League leader Sufi Faruq. Poll playThe EC has rejected 786 of the 2,279 nominations received for the 300 seats (overall 350 seats with 50 reserved for women) in the Bangladesh parliament, Jatiya Sangsad. And nearly 250 of these 786 have appealed to the EC for reconsideration.In all, 141 nominations of the BNP were rejected, as opposed to only three of Awami League; 38 nominations of the Jatiya Party of former military dictator H M Ershad were also rejected. The others whose nominations were rejected are rebels contesting independently. Following appeals by rejected candidates, 80 nominations have been accepted by the Election commission.Data, however, suggests that the number of rejections is not unusual — while about 25% of the 3,065 nominations for the upcoming polls were rejected on grounds of convictions, defaulting on loans and non-payment of utility bills, the corresponding number for the 2008 parliamentary polls was 22% of 2,460 nominations. BNP’s long list of woesBNP chairperson Khaleda Zia’s nominations for three constituencies — Bogra-6 & 7 and Feni-1 — were rejected, as she has been sentenced to 10 years in jail for embezzlement of funds meant for orphans in the 2008 Zia Orphanage case. “This proves that the government wants to deny our leaders a chance to contest. The Awami League knows it cannot win a fair election, so it is using the EC to avoid a contest,” alleged BNP joint secretary Ruhul Kabir Rizvi.“She has been framed in such a way that she cannot fight elections. Can anything be more unfair?” He also alleged that the EC had not rejected the nomination of Awami League minister Syed Ashraful Islam despite his form not bearing his signature, as he is abroad for treatment.Khaleda Zia has not appealed for reconsideration, but many Opposition heavyweights have, including Jatiya Party secretary-general ABM Ruhul Amin Howlader (Patuakhali-1), Jatiya Party aspirant Sohel Rana (Barisal-2), BNP’s Ruhul Quddus Talukder Dulu (Natore-2) and Sabira Sultana (Jessore-2).Opposition leaders said they see an “evil design” behind the rejections. “The EC is trying to deny us a level playing field and doing everything possible to ensure that Awami League candidates win without a contest,” said BNP leader Ruhul Dulu.However, some, like Gholam Maula Rony of BNP, are not complaining. “I am happy with the EC. It reviewed my case fairly, and I can now contest,” said Rony, who defected from the Awami League recently.BNP organising secretary Ruhul Quddus Talukder Dulu, who has filed a petition for review after his nomination was rejected over his conviction in two cases, said the government was looking to conduct the upcoming election in a manner similar to the 2014 one. “Many nominations were rejected on flimsy grounds, like non-payment of credit card bills,” he alleged. ‘Rebels’ with a cause?Of the large number of independents whose nominations were rejected, many are ‘rebel’ Awami League candidates. They had filed nominations after being denied party tickets. “These rebel candidates would have sliced into the Awami League vote bank. Hence, they have been rejected. Same is the case with pronounced secular candidates, who can split Awami League votes,” said political journalist Chandan Nandy, who is closely watching the Bangladesh elections.He added that factionalism poses a major challenge to the Awami League in this election, which is why it is trying to silence these ‘rebels’. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in a desperate effort to curb factionalism, even warned rebel candidates that they would be expelled for life.Imran H Sarkar, convener of the Gana Jagaran Mancha that led the Shahbagh uprising to back the demand for capital punishment for Islamists convicted of 1971 war crimes, also found his nomination from Kurigram-4 constituency rejected. “Personalities like Sarkar can cut into Awami League votes because they are seen as authentic secularists, as opposed to Awami League nominees,” opined Nandy.The Awami League, however, has denied any interference with the poll process. “The EC and Anti-Corruption Commission are autonomous bodies, our government does not interfere with them,” said Obaidul Quader, Awami League general secretary and Roads & Bridges minister. Awami League leader Ajoy Sarkar said, “The corruption cases against Khaleda were started by the Anti-Corruption Commission much before we came to power. She delayed proceedings by staying away from court, and it has taken more than 10 years to pronounce the verdict. That’s not our fault.” The root of it allThe system of a caretaker government, which ruled for an interim period during elections, was abolished by the Awami League in 2011, and that led to the BNP and its allies boycotting the January 2014 parliamentary election. They demanded that polls be conducted by a neutral caretaker dispensation; when that didn’t happen, violence broke out.In the run-up to the election and later, BNP and its ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, unleashed a series of bombings and attacks on public transport to bring down the Awami League government, killing nearly 100 civilians. The police filed thousands of cases against BNP and Jamaat activists and leaders. Now, many have been convicted, and quite a few for more than two years. Another sweep on the anvil?The Awami League, which had swept the December 2008 parliament polls, routing the BNP, returned to power without losing any sleep. More than half of its candidates — 153, to be precise — were elected without a contest. Also, a lawsuit seeking to declare elections for these 153 seats as unlawful was dismissed by court. “Never in our history have unelected governments ruled for five years. Democracy has to be restored,” said Kamal Hossain, former Awami League leader who is now the face of Oikyo Jote, the united Opposition front.But the Awami League is confident that the Opposition’s rant over “absence of democracy” will cut no ice with the 103-million-plus electorate. “Under Hasina’s leadership, we have scripted the most phenomenal socio-economic story. If elected, we can take our GDP growth to 10% per annum. Foreign investments will flow into the 100-odd special economic zones, many commissioned and others coming up. The people are smart; they know what is good for them,” said Industries Minister Amir Hossain Amu.

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Bangladesh Election Commission rejects nominations of ‘criminal’ candidates; Opposition cries foul

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