Mixed bag of bold steps, grave failures

SOME years leave a deep imprint on the future for the better. This one was certainly not one of them. The best that can be said about it is that it was a mixed bag of bold initiatives and miserable failures. This being the third of a five year term, it was the Awami League government’s last opportunity to undertake important but unpopular reforms. For the remaining two years the ruling party is likely to be in the ‘re-election’ mode and therefore more prone to populist and costly decisions.

From high cost of living to the beginning of the trial of war criminals, from repeated increase in fuel prices to cancellation of the caretaker government, from share market debacle to an exciting local government election in which a female candidate defeats the choice of a mighty prime minister — all this defines the bygone year.

The decision that is likely to have the highest impact on the future of the country’s democracy is the government’s cancellation of the caretaker government system following a Supreme Court verdict. While doing away with the caretaker system, the Supreme Court had also given the choice that the system could continue for the next two elections.

But the government chose to immediately end the mechanism which was evolved, at their insistence and long drawn out agitation, to ensure fair and acceptable elections under a neutral caretaker government some two decades ago.

The cancellation and the swiftness with which it was done have also caused deep anxiety in the public mind about whether the BNP and its allies would join an election held under a political government and, if they do not join, how acceptable a one-sided election would be.

The year led to worries about the economic future too. A nagging double-digit inflation for a long period of 10 months has frayed the nerves of the common people. As figures clearly show, people had to use up their savings to eke out a living. Domestic economic mismanagement defined by high borrowing, high subsidy and high import bill because of costly fuel import to generate electricity has as much to be blamed as the international price situation.

To reduce subsidy, the government had to repeatedly increase fuel and electricity prices. And only the future will tell as to what extent this will burden consumers who might not even see a modest pay rise against the backdrop of the global economic meltdown. And predictions about fuel prices are now varied, creating new tension. The global gloom should pull it down. But the uncertainty arising out of Iran’s threat to block the Straits of Hormuz and the Arab unrest throw up a troubling picture.

Investment is another crucial area that lagged behind in the past year with the energy crisis being the main reason. Whether investment will pick up this year depends more on political stability.

To add to the political unease is the impending changeover in the election commission. The whole of last year was wasted without giving much thought to passing a law on how to form a commission. All eyes are now fixed on it as the president has initiated talks with the political parties on the appointment of the chief election commissioner and his deputies. The outcome will influence much of politics in the coming years.

Hope inspiring as it was, the year just passed also saw the beginning of the trial of war criminals. This was an electoral pledge of the Awami League and the younger generation was enthused with this expectation to vote for the AL. Now the nation is waiting to see the outcome of the trial.

The year also saw a weak opposition languishing in its archaic politics of fear mongering about the country being taken over by India. The BNP looked frayed and lost in the political wilderness with its chief Khaleda Zia too busy trying to wage a movement that looked more focused on getting her two sons off the corruption hook than on any specific political objectives or thoughts of governance. The BNP walked out of parliament in March and has not returned to it since, making itself look like a ghost of a party that believes in parliamentary democracy.

The year inspired some hope when the results of the Narayanganj City Corporation elections showed Selina Hayat Ivy, a minnow, winning over Shamim Osman, a powerful person with a shady background but nevertheless backed by the powers that be. The election results once again proved that people’s power was mightier than muscle power and suggested that the parties send the godfathers to a twilight existence.

The year also saw the government trying to work out better ties with India through a number of steps, including offering transit and seeking a deal on a sharing of the Teesta waters, none of which in the end materialized, to the embarrassment of both countries. On both issues rancour runs high among the people.

Extra-judicial killings that were seen in the form of crossfire, appear to have been replaced by disappearances towards the end of the year, which has left a deep sense of unease among the public.

Among the most depressing aspect of the year was the rise of corruption and the government’s apparent attitude of doing nothing about it. Highlighted by the impasse with the World Bank over the Padma Bridge, corruption, which has been among the country’s biggest challenge for the past several years, attained an endemic form during the year.

The humiliation meted out to and false accusations made against our only Nobel Laureate will stand out as an example of the government’s vindictiveness and disregard for the personal reputation of citizens.

As a new year begins today, the issue most likely to dominate the events of the coming year is that of the abolished caretaker government and the formation of the new Election Commission. The economy, especially rising prices, will be another issue that will occupy the public mind heavily. Above all, the general public will carefully observe where the rising trend of confrontational politics will lead the nation.


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