Friday, January 11, 2008

High on promises, low on delivery

High on promises, low on delivery
Nazrul Islam
Source: New Age
January 11, 2007

The country steps into its second year under a state of emergency today, with the government of Fakhruddin Ahmed reeling under a number of difficulties on the political and economic fronts. The government, which assumed office a day after the declaration of the state of emergency on January 11, 2007, on the other hand, has been dogged by problems within.

The resignation of five advisers in the space of two weeks has raised questions about its credibility and also its capability to carry out the proposed reforms towards ‘perpetuating democracy in Bangladesh.’

In his maiden address to the nation through radio and television on January 21, Fakhruddin promised sweeping reforms in political and electoral process to ensure credible and contested elections to the ninth Jatiya Sangsad, originally scheduled for January 22, 2007.

Holding contested and credible general elections remains the biggest challenge for the interim government, political analysts and former advisers to the caretaker government say.

‘The main challenge for the government is to hold the elections,’ Talukder Moniruzzaman, a professor of political science at Dhaka University, says. However, he believes, the government has been rather busy trying to break the established political parties and undermining the political process. ‘Politics without politicians will never help establish democracy,’ he says.
Moniruzzaman also suspects that there are attempts by the government and the Election Commission to doctor the electoral process, which he said would be disastrous for the nation in the long run.

Sultana Kamal, who was on the President Iajuddin Ahmed-led caretaker government but later resigned, agrees with Moniruzzaman’s view that the major challenge for the government is to hold credible and contested general elections, for which, she says, the withdrawal of the state of emergency is imperative.

Sultana says the interim government is in essence different from any of the past caretaker administrations. ‘It has done some remarkable jobs but also made some mistakes in the past one year.’

The state of emergency also impedes political reforms, politicians irrespective of party affiliations say politicians. ‘Political reforms will be impossible with civil and political rights suspended,’ an Awami League leader says. Meanwhile, the Election Commission has been riddled with more problems than one. It has failed to complete dialogues with the political parties over its proposed electoral reforms within the deadline stipulated in its election roadmap.

Also, the process to make the commission’s secretariat and amend the service rules for its employees has remained although the deadline set by the roadmap ended in December.
Besides, it has shelved the plan to hold elections to all local government bodies before the parliamentary polls and now narrowed its focus to holding city corporation elections. While the roadmap envisages general elections by the end of 2008, the commission has said on more occasions than one that the elections could be held earlier.

All the while, the relations between the government and the political parties have deteriorated. The politicians became all the more suspicious when some advisers of the government publicly advocated for the emergence of new leadership and the media reported overt and covert attempts by the incumbents to relegate Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia to political irrelevance.
The suspicion lingers on.

Politicians in almost all major camps in particular and the people in general are increasingly confused as to whether or not there would be any elections within the timeframe detailed by the government and in these circumstances. ‘We are not clear whether the government wants participation of the political parties or they just want to conduct elections with the now mushrooming parties with military blessings,’ a BNP leader says. ‘We see no prospect of elections keeping two former prime ministers behind bars.’

Politicians believe the government has so far made no attempt to hold any dialogue with political parties to find ways towards holding fair and contested elections, and is intent on sustaining its campaign to malign the political process.

Print and electronic media have, meanwhile, been subject to continuous ‘supervision.’ The government closed down one private television channel, put a bar on talk-shows for a few days and cancelled declaration of nearly 200 small newspapers and periodicals published outside Dhaka. Also, during the curfew imposed in the wake of the August 20-22 campus protests, several journalists were harassed.

Rights defenders say there have been repeated violations of human rights ever since the declaration of the state of emergency.

The Fakhruddin government allowed arbitrary detention of tens of thousands of people as part of its anti-corruption campaign. The army-led joint forces put more than 200 leading politicians behind bars.

These politicians mainly belong to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League, which ruled the country alternately for the past 15 years. ‘The government must be respectful to people’s fundamental rights,’ said Sultana Kamal.

The anti-corruption campaign resulted in a slowdown in economic activities, forcing the administration to compromise with a few detained businessmen, many of whom were released on bail.
In almost all his five addresses to the nation, the chief adviser pledged to perpetuate the democratic process, create a business-friendly atmosphere and contain the skyrocketing of essential prices. However, economists say the government’s inefficiency to run its affairs has made the people ‘prisoners of economic insecurity.’

The insecurity has intensified because of an economic slowdown compounded by dipping foreign and local investments, rising inflation, food price hike, shrinking job market and declining foreign trade besides political uncertainties. Long-term investors are still waiting for a clear picture of the political scene, said Zaid Bakht, an economist.

‘Confidence is directly related to investment. We saw a declining trend in investment on the first year [of the interim government],’ the president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry, says. The business community suffered a lack of confidence because of the government’s arbitrary actions, he adds. However, he believes, the investment scenario would be different this year if the government focuses on improving the business environment.
Towards the end of the year, the government did initiate a move to restore business confidence.
It formed the Bangladesh Business Forum and convened a conference of non-resident Bangladeshis in an apparent move to encourage expatriate Bangladeshis to invest in the country.

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