Sunday, June 22, 2008 11:42 AM GMT+06:00

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Point Counterpoint
Mission impossible?
Anam A. Choudhury

No one wants to go back to the bad old days. Photo: Munir uz Zaman/ Drik News
MOST political observers reckon that Bangladesh may have plunged into yet another period of political uncertainty. It is probably naive to expect that the present caretaker government will be able to put an end to these long periods of political deadlock very easily. However, with the departure of Sheikh Hasina and the expected release of Begum Zia and her two sons, perhaps there is a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.

Some may attack the caretaker regime for flip-flops, but an overwhelming majority may approve of "constructive engagement" with the two major parties, so that we can finally have an agreement that will make our elections conform to modern democratic practices, and their results will be accepted without the rancorous disputes we normally see in our country. Bangladesh needs to move beyond the corruption scandal. But before it does, the people have to know exactly what happened, regardless of the precise legality of each case.

The last thing this impoverished country needs now is another period of political turmoil and economic chaos. The horror of political turmoil is that those who suffer most are those who deserve to suffer least. Some economic observers, long mystified by Bangladesh's ability to live beyond its means and postpone what they see as an unavoidable economic crisis, think that the country might be finally running out of luck.

Skyrocketing food and fuel prices have already sparked protests in many countries. Naturally, Bangladesh will be one of the hardest hit countries, because the bulk of the income of the people is spent on the bare necessities for survival.

Doubling of food and fuel prices over the past three years could potentially push millions of people into extreme poverty. World Bank president Robert Zoellick and IMF head Dominique Strauss voiced concern and fear that soaring grain and fuel prices could cause global instability unless remedies were found quickly. There is no lasting solution to our economic backwardness without rapid and sustained economic growth.

It is a widely held view that political stability is sine qua non for long-term peace and prosperity. Chronic political instability is a big obstacle to injecting fresh vitality into our economy. Most economists reckon that Bangladesh's "speculative" rating is a major disqualification for FDI. International rating agencies, such as Standard & Poor's and Moody's are yet to acknowledge that Bangladesh is worth investing in.

Unless rating agencies raise the country's rating from "speculative" to "investment grade," Bangladesh will not be able to attract much needed investment in development projects such as highways, ports, education and health care. Countries such as South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand, which have invested substantially in literacy and public health, have outperformed their neighbours economically. Sovereign rating on Bangladesh will remain beyond reach because of the country's weak fiscal profile -- such as high levels of external debt, unacceptably large trade deficit and huge public sector borrowing requirement.

Make no mistake, capital is not sympathetic to countries that tax too much, borrow too much and spend too much. Studies have found that there are lots of things these days that naive politicians and bureaucrats should not be doing. For example, printing money to finance reckless borrowing, raising taxes so high as to discourage enterprise and investment, and introducing or preserving regulations that impose high costs on business and distort economic decisions. Bangladesh's future depends on its increasing integration into regional and global economies. Unfortunately, Bangladesh is still in a state of dangerous political disarray.

People wonder whether we can save our democracy from the viciously confrontational two-party politics. The eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth politics of the last few years was a national embarrassment, except that perhaps no politician felt embarrassed. They are virtually unrepentant about their obscene political past and the countless allegations of bribery and corruption. The traditional politics of left and right, at least in terms of class and economics, is obsolescent in many countries. Sadly enough, in Bangladesh old politics are very much well and alive. Party loyalties, based on old class and religious identities, still matter most.

Millions of Bangladeshis in cities and suburbs view voting for anyone other than the BNP and the Awami League as more or less unthinkable. In our county, politics is still dominated by change-resistant dynasties, which limits voter choice. The majority of voters are generally ignorant of the specific policies of the party they support. Issues and policies just do not matter when it comes to voting. Long established party identifications come first. Our maverick politicians are well aware of the fact that elections are about the victory of one party over another, and the bottom line is that, in Bangladesh, it is either the BNP or the Awami League. Consequently, both the major parties campaign themes are simply winning the election and ousting the present caretaker government.

They have not worked out exactly how they will address deep-rooted economic and political problems that the country faces today. They look incapable of dealing with the daunting economic and social problems of today's world. Western powers demand democracy. One wonders why. The notion that elections will magically cure all our economic and political ills is a mistaken one. The origins of economic and political problems are more complex than a simple lack of democracy. Many liberal intellectuals and academics misunderstand the nature of our political problem. The man in the street evinces no faith in democracy anymore. People do not want to go back to the old days.

They were really horrified by the upsurge of crime and rampant corruption. It made us squirm to think how badly politicians had messed up the politics of this country in the name of democracy. Does democracy curb corruption? The answer is simply no. By almost all calculations, most corruption and scandals take place in democracies. Transparency International, a global counter-corruption watchdog estimated that light-fingered politicians and bureaucrats cream off at least 20 percent of development spending in democracies like Nigeria, Indonesia, Bangladesh and India.

Can democracy destroy terrorism? Again the answer is, no. Most terrorist attacks take place in democracies, not authoritarian countries. According to one study, during the last 25 years, there were more than 400 terrorist attacks in India and only 18 in China.

The majority believes that the caretaker government is seeking to strengthen our democracy and restore a sense of values to this confused nation, but skeptics smell a hidden political agenda behind this. There are ample signs that many people are disenchanted with "democracy" as practiced in recent years in Bangladesh. Surely they do not want shrewd political opportunists seizing the chance again.

We cannot keep doing what we are doing now, particularly in the current economic climate. The forthcoming election will be a turning point, whether we go forward or slip back. Let us resolve our differences and work together to realise our cherished dreams.

Anam A. Choudhury is a former investment banker.



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