Published by the Daily Star on 15 Dec 2008.
TALK is cheap, especially during an election season. Over the past days, both major parties have announced their election manifestos. Whether titled A Charter for Change or Save People, Save Country, both documents make lofty promises on every sector from sports to telecommunication. This piece will discuss some of the promises by the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party on the economy, governance, corruption, and energy.
Overall, AL provides specific timetables against which its performance can be judged in most sectors. While BNP gives little detail, its promise to strengthen the Jatiya Sangsad, if implemented, will have far reaching consequences for our democracy. Finally, neither side is forthcoming about how to fund their promises.
Unsurprisingly, both parties begin their manifestos with promises to control inflation and bring prices of the essentials within the purchasing power of the people. However, there are important differences in their approaches.
AL promises to eliminate hoarding and profiteering syndicates and stop extortion by creating an institution to control commodity prices and protect the consumer. A consumer protection agency is long overdue, but high prices are due to much more than anti-competitive behaviour by sellers.
BNP is silent on syndicates, and promises to reduce prices by increasing food production, improving the supply chain by better utilising storage facilities, creating a jobs program to increase the purchasing power of the poor, and directly subsidising the prices of necessities.
In the long run, there is no alternative to enhancing the supply side in the markets for food and other essentials, but it is not clear where the revenue needed for the work program or the subsidies will come from.
In addition to inflation, AL promises to create a task force to devise steps to save Bangladesh from the global financial crisis. BNP promises a high-powered advisory committee. While AL puts maintaining economic stability in the face of global financial crisis right at the top of its priorities, it is striking that BNP mentions the worst economic crisis in generations only in passing half way through its manifesto.
Turning to the longer-term task of poverty alleviation and economic development, AL promises to reduce the number of poor people from current 65 million to 45 million by 2013 through a combination of social welfare measures and rural employment generation policies.
BNP doesn’t mention anything specific, but it also promises poverty reduction through economic growth. To facilitate growth, it lists a plethora of steps aimed at industrialisation. However, without any specific commitment, it will be difficult to judge its performance should it be elected.
Governance, political reform, combating militancy
Both parties promise a range of political reforms to improve governance and counter militancy. BNP puts improving the law and order situation and suppressing terrorismincluding militancy in the name of religionas its second highest priority.
Turning to governance, it promises to make the posts of speaker and deputy speaker of the Jatiya Sangsad non-partisan, and strengthen the role of the legislature through bi-partisan select committees. It specifically promises activating these committees by the second session of the assembly. These promises, if implemented, will assist in avoiding a repetition of the recent past.
While promising no specific steps about improving the effectiveness of the legislature, AL also promises to improve politics and governance, and curb militancy and terrorism. In addition, AL promises to end extra judicial killing. Finally, AL makes an explicit promise to arrange the trial of war criminals. Unsurprisingly, BNP is silent on this issue.
The fight against corruption ranks the second in AL’s priority, and third in BNP’s. Both sides promise disclosure of wealth statement: AL wants it annually from “powerful people.” BNP wants it from all elected representatives within 30 days of their election. Both sides also talk about increased transparency and stiff penalties for corruption.
In addition, AL explicitly mentions computerisation as a weapon in the fight against corruption. In the medium to long term, computerisation can reduce corruption through more transparency in administration and service delivery, and it is encouraging to see AL recognise this.
Power and energy
Energy ranks third in AL’s priority, and fifth in BNP’s. AL makes a specific promise of 5,000 megawatt power production by 2011, rising to 7,000 megawatt by 2013. BNP promises action on two 450 megawatt power plants within 100 days of taking office if elected. Both parties promise to build smaller scale plants, and AL mentions importing electricity from neighbouring countries.
In addition, BNP promises an expert committee within 100 days to formulate a mineral resources policy, while AL promises a national coal policy. However, neither side has made any reference whatsoever to their stance on the appropriate use of the nation’s resources. Given the fact that the debate over how best to utilise our natural resources goes back to the 1990s if not earlier, the major parties’ silence is extraordinary indeed.
While making promises before elections, politicians often lose track of the numbers. Neither side has provided any detailed costing of how their policies. However, even in the first 100 days or six months in office, to meet their promises the incoming government will have to adjust budget and other commitments made by the current government.
Over the medium term, the visions announced by the parties fail to recognise important trade offsbetween industrialisation and environment for examplethat will have to be met regardless of who wins the election. Given the global economic crisis, a number of costly promises may well be shelved. It is all the more important that maximum pressure is brought to the parties to keep promises like stronger parliamentary committees or war crimes trial that do not require much financing.