Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Stagnating under clean interim government

Stagnating Under 'Clean' Interim Government
By Farid Ahmed
Source: IPS

DHAKA, Jan 14 (IPS) - Bangladesh's military-backed interim government faced hard challenges on the political and economic fronts as it stepped into its second year on the weekend.

When the interim government came to power under a state of emergency, pledging credible polls, it enjoyed popular support. But this has given way to severe criticism over inept handling of economic issues.

The government, headed by former World Bank official Fakhruddin Ahmed, assumed office with the support of the army on Jan. 12, last year. A day earlier, the country's President Iajuddin Ahmed had imposed emergency rule to quell street violence over the conduct of national polls, originally timed for January 2007.

Soon after taking power, in an address to the nation, Fakhruddin Ahmed, also a former chief of the central bank, promised sweeping reforms in the political and electoral processes and credible elections to the parliament.

Again on Saturday, he reiterated his pledge on holding the polls, but analysts said there is no mutual trust between the political parties and the government and that the electoral process may be delayed further.

Over the last one year, Ahmed’s administration has turned down all demands for holding a dialogue with the political parties. But on Saturday Ahmed appeared to relent, saying it was imperative that the government sit down with political leaders.

Senior economist Zaid Bakht told IPS that it was necessary for the government to talk with the political parties. ‘’The government should allay the state of fear and build mutual trust,’’ said Bakht, a research director at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies in Dhaka.

"The main challenge for the government is to hold the elections," said Talukder Moniruzzaman, a professor of political science at Dhaka University.

The government reshuffled its 11-member cabinet last week, removing five members, amid widespread criticism over the continuous rise in prices of essentials and staples, specially rice.

The state-run Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics showed that food prices hit an 11-year high of 13.8 percent in November, rising 6.65 percent last year.

The central bank on Thursday said rising prices in the international market, twin floods in July-September and the devastating cyclone in November were responsible. But clearly business confidence has also been shaken by the government's anti-corruption drive.

Economists said the government's inefficiency in running the affairs had made the people "prisoners of economic insecurity."

"I don't know what is good for us, but when there was a political turmoil, a year ago, I could buy a kg of coarse rice at a price of 20 taka (28 US cents). Now I have to spend 35 taka (50 cents) for the same," said a rickshaw (pedicab) puller Abdul Hamid in Dhaka.

Investment, both foreign and domestic, also marked a sharp decline in the last one year. According to the latest figures of the state-run Board of Investment, new proposals dipped more than 55 percent between January and November last year.

Foreign investment proposals plunged to 315.796 million dollars in the January-November period, down by about 84 per cent from 1.92 billion dollars in the corresponding period for 2006. Similarly, domestic investment was down by 36 percent in the same period, reported daily ‘New Age’ marking the government's performance of one year.

"Long-term investors were still waiting for a clear picture of the political scene," Bakht said.

Although the government succeeded in separating the judiciary from its executive branch, curbing corruption, making the Chittagong seaport effective, managing post-floods and post-cyclone situation, it failed at handling macro-economic issues, he said.

"There is political uncertainty and stagnation in economy," he said, adding that while the government has talked about carrying out political reforms, this is yet to be worked out.

Shafiqul Islam, a businessman in Dhaka, believed that political reforms would be impossible with the civil and political rights suspended under the state of emergency.

The successes of administration also included creating an independent Anti-Corruption Commission and recasting the Public Service Commission.

It also reorganised the Election Commission, and is now putting final touches on the plans to free it from control of the prime minister's office.

Chief election commissioner A.T.M. Shamsul Huda said on Wednesday: "We're firm on holding the vote by the end of this year and maybe earlier, if all the preparations are complete."

The commission, with the help of the army, was also preparing fresh electoral rolls with photographic identity cards to check any fraud during the voting, he said.

The commission expected to have the new electoral rolls ready by June and set the election schedule sooner than expected, he added.

In the meantime, the government will have to complete court proceedings against many senior politicians detained during the ongoing drives against corruption.

Ahmed and the army chief Moeen U. Ahmed have, on more than one occasion, said the drive was designed to clean up the politics ahead of the polls.

Among those detained are former prime ministers Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Begum Khaleda Zia, several of their family members, former ministers and a number of top businessmen and media tycoons. Only a few of them have so far been sentenced.

If convicted Hasina and her rival Khaleda, who alternated as prime minister for the last one and half decades until October 2006, will be barred from contesting in the next polls.

Hasina's Awami League and Khaleda's Bangladesh Nationalist Party have often voiced fears that jailed leaders might not get justice in trials before special anti-corruption courts.

Irene Khan, secretary-general of the London-based Amnesty International, has urged the Bangladesh government to ease the state of emergency to restore human rights and rule of law ahead of the elections.

She also urged the government, on Thursday, to initiate a dialogue with the political parties.

Nurul Kabir, editor of English-language daily ‘New Age’ told IPS that the present leadership has visibly failed to live up to the expectations that it generated in public minds a year ago.

"The reason behind the failures, I believe, are two-fold: lack of proper understanding of the need of a vibrant political process to bring in democratic reforms in an otherwise undemocratic political system and a tendency to adhere to the proposition of the politics of anti-politics," he said.

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