Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Awami League Government: So Far So Good


THE AWAMI League-led government in Bangladesh, which completed 100 days in office, has received public approval, as expressed in opinion polls, for its management of the economy and for how it tackled the Bangladesh Rifles mutiny. The one explicit concern of citizens is that the AL cadre, including the student wing of the party, have begun to be involved in criminal acts, exactly as they did during the 1996-2001 government of the party. Overall, despite tensions that continue to simmer beneath the surface and in the face of economic problems, the elected government of Sheikh Hasina seems to be in a stable position.

The first 100 days of the new Awami League (AL)-led government have come and gone, and the indications are both that the government seems to be performing in a reasonably creditable manner, but, equally important, that the popularity which swept it to a landslide victory in national elections last December shows no immediate signs of ebbing.

The Daily Star conducted a country-wide poll on the first 100 days, carried out by the polling firm, A C Neilsen, and the results can only be read as highly encouraging for Sheikh Hasina and her government. Fully 70% of the poll’s respondents thought that the country was heading in the right direction following the December 2008 elections, and 80% indicated that they were either satisfied or highly satisfied with the incumbent government’s performance so far. Similarly, almost 60% of respondents indicated that they approved of the fledgling government’s handling of the economy, and over 70% approved of the government’s measures to address inflation and bring down the prices of essentials, which had been the public’s number one concern prior to the election.

Managing the Economy
Indeed, the polls merely reflect the stewardship of the economy by the government, with two veteran ministers, A M A Muhith at finance and Motia Choudhury at agriculture at the helm of the two ministries that are most crucial in terms of keeping the prices of essentials within the reach of the ordinary citizen and ensuring that the economy remains on an even keel.

Despite the economic devastation being wrought all over the planet, Bangladesh’s economy has remained remarkably buoyant, with no major fallout yet observed in its garment exports or in the flow of remittances, which are the two pillars of the economy and the foreign exchange reserves.

The central bank has tussled with the World Bank and other independent analysts on the figures for economic growth, but there seems to be a general consensus that growth will not dip below 4.5% in the current fiscal year, with the government putting the figure closer to 6.5% right at par with the country’s average over the past 15 years of democratic rule. Even the lower estimate would be a creditable showing for the government in these difficult times.

In addition to the global financial crisis, the government has also inherited a power crisis, and, as the nation is finding out due to excellent media coverage over the past month, environmental pollution threatens to render the capital city Dhaka unlivable within a decade unless drastic and immediate steps are taken to curtail industrial pollution and to ensure that the rivers in and around the environs of Dhaka city are free of untreated sewage and toxic waste.

Of course, the solutions to crises such as these take years to implement, but the encouraging thing for the government is the indication that the average voter is well aware of the limitations of what can be achieved in a short period of time, and has the patience and maturity to give the government both the time required to make a dent into pre-existing problems and the benefit of the doubt while the processes are ongoing.

Deteriorating Law and Order
The noteworthy exception to the government’s quietly competent performance and the only one that has raised the ire of the public is the deteriorating law and order situation. It is a sad but true observation that law and order is typically better both under a state of emergency and under a non-elected government, and certainly there has been a rise in crime since the lifting of the emergency and the elections of 29 December 2008.

Indeed, part of the problem is that a not inconsiderable proportion of crime is, in fact, committed by cadres associated with the party in power. It was extortion, looting, rape, and the like committed by AL party activists or their criminal affiliates (often the line between the two is blurry) that had been the biggest black mark against the last AL government (1996-2001) and that had been a major contributory factor to its ignominious defeat in the 2001 election, and the early signs are that the party has still to learn its lesson and rein in its hoodlum element.

When asked to identify the government’s principal weakness in its first 100 days, 24% of The Daily Star poll respondents cited law and order and a further 16% the negative role of the Chhatra League, the AL’s student wing, which has lost little time since the election in establishing itself at the expense of opposition party student wings and politically unaffiliated common criminal gangs, and has also been engaged in vicious intra-factional fighting over the division of the spoils.

More than 50% of those polled were able to identify areas that had been negatively affected by the Chhatra League, and 44% agreed that the party needed to keep the student wing under stricter control, with 5% wanting stern action, and a further 13% opining that all student politics should be banned.

Bangladesh Rifles Mutiny
But of specific relief to the government would be the poll’s findings that fully 80% gave it good marks for its judicious and restrained handling of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) mutiny/massacre of 25-26 February 2009 that left 74, including 57 army officers, dead.

The government’s handling of the situation, specifically, its decision to negotiate a settlement and the prime minister’s steadfast refusal to give the army the go-ahead to storm the BDR headquarters compound where the mutineers were holed up with their hostages, had prompted a crescendo of criticism from the opposition and the army. The government will thus be gratified to note that only about 10% of the general public share this point of view.

The government’s official probe into the carnage has been finalised and submitted to the Home Ministry, although it is yet to be officially released to the public. Nevertheless, bits and pieces have, of course, been selectively leaked to the press, and the indications are that no links between the mutineers and militant groups have been found. Similarly, there is no concrete evidence that there was any political dimension to the mutiny, nor that any foreign government or intelligence agency played a role.

How accurate and thorough the probe has been remains a question for the historians, but the immediate impact of such an anodyne report will be to insulate the government from any instability on this count. Indeed, the evidence suggests that the incident, less than three months ago, is already fading from public consciousness, and will most likely not result in lasting damage to the government or pose a threat to the stability of the state.

Curbing Militancy
That said, even as the BDR mutiny/massacre is being relegated to the back-burner, there is every sign that Sheikh Hasina’s government has decided to take a strong stand on militancy and anti-state activities.

On 14 May there was a sensational capture from a safe-house in Dhaka of Boma Mizan, the alleged bomb-making mastermind of the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), and every day brings new revelations with respect to the Chittagong arms haul of 2004 where more than $100 million worth of arms and ammunition were apprehended.

Two former intelligence chiefs have already been arrested in connection with the arms haul case, an action unheard of in the recent history of the country, and one that has sent shock waves through the security community. In addition, another former intelligence chief, who had only recently been relieved of his command, has quietly been retired from active service.

By all accounts, the prime minister seems to have the bit between her teeth and is determined to consolidate her position, both against militant groups, who have always targeted her and her party, and against rogue elements within either the armed forces or the intelligence services, who may also have an interest in destabilising her government. It seems that she is thoroughly persuaded that to not take action would only lead to further instability and even threaten the tenure of her government.

One point to watch is whether the army chief, General Moeen, whose term has been extended once already and which is due to expire in June 2009, is given a further extension, as seems to be on the cards. The army chief was under a great deal of pressure within the army following the BDR massacre/mutiny, with many army officers holding him as responsible as the prime minister for not storming the compound, although he received high marks from independent observers both for subordinating himself to the civilian government and for keeping strict control over the army itself.

If Moeen were to be allowed a second extension it would indicate that the prime minister still believes that he is the best man available to protect her right flank. However, if he manages to survive, just a few months after the slaughter of 57 officers in an incident that led much of the officer corps to demand his resignation, it would also be an indication that he has managed to reconsolidate his control over the army. The evidence of the past two years suggests that he is neither antagonistic to a democratic government, this particular government, nor entertains ambitions to assume power himself. As such, his retention of the army command would be, on balance, a sign of stability.

In short, despite tensions that continue to simmer beneath the surface and threaten to explode at any moment, and despite potential economic problems that do not look like they are going away any time soon, the country seems to be in as stable a position as could be hoped for. Whether this will remain the case as what promises to be a long, hot summer gets underway, remains to be seen. #

First published in Economic & Political Weekly (EPW), May 30, 2009

Zafar Sobhan (zsobhan@hotmail.com) is op-ed editor, The Daily Star, Dhaka