Manifesto revelations: focus on the differences

Mridul Chowdhury
Published by the New Age on 24 Dec 2008.

We have to live with the fact that in Bangladeshi politics, we do not yet have a culture of holding the winning party’s feet to the fire based on their election promises.

If their election manifestos are anything to go by, the major political parties, it seems, are ready to promising everything under the sun as long as such promises ensure their passage to power. Some of the manifestos are specific with quantifiable targets and short-term strategies while others are laden with broad goals and generalised pledges. There seem to be broadly three prominent categories of thought with the manifestos of the two major parties — the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Bangladesh Awami League.
   Some people seem happy that the Awami League, in its manifesto, has specified ‘numbers’ for many of their goals such as GDP growth and poverty reduction, arguing that it shows vision and thinking. Curiously, the numbers related to their poverty reduction targets are multiples of 5. ‘By 2013,’ the AL manifesto says, ‘poverty level and proportion of ultra-poor will be brought down to 25% and 15% respectively. The number of poor people will be reduced from 65 to 45 million.’ One could very well question whether these figures are products of an ‘intellectual’ conversation or some actual economic analysis.
   Some others are dubbing BNP’s manifesto as relatively ill-conceived, since there is little mention of short-term strategies and few mentions of ‘numbers’.
   Yet, for a lot of others, there is really no substantial difference between the two and it does not really matter what they say anyway because there seems to be absolutely no analysis of where the funding for realising these promises will come from – so it is like a hollow competition of who can promise more and present their ‘offerings’ more intelligently, which AL seems to have trumped the others on.

   However, if one gets into the details of which issues the parties are placing their emphasis on in their respective manifestoes, or more interestingly, which issues they are carefully avoiding, it does reveal important information about the parties or can potentially raise/ flag questions in a voter’s mind.
   Let’s focus on the curious differences in the manifestos of the four major parties – AL, BNP, Jamaat and Jatiya Party.
   Strategies for reducing prices
   This is possibly the biggest factor affecting citizens in the short-term and all parties have promised the usual – increase production, provide food subsidies, revise import policies etc.
   However, AL has gone a step
   further by explicitly mentioning elimination of ‘syndicates’, which are no doubt an important piece
   of the uncontrollable price hike
   mystery, but one that is largely ‘intangible’.
   AL’s bluntness in mentioning them in the manifesto and the others’ avoidance of the issue does raise a point to be noted.
   Whether the AL will actually do anything about this, if voted to power, is a different matter but AL does promise the creation of a consumer protection agency, which others do not.
   
   Strengthening parliamentary democracy
   Democracy is much more than a free and fair election – a functional parliament is at least just as important. Judging from the manifestos, only BNP seems to realise that well enough.
   BNP is more assertive than the others about strengthening parliamentary democracy by proposing that both Speaker and Deputy Speaker have to resign from their party posts and cut all ties with their respective parties; and that the Deputy Speaker will be selected from the opposition party. AL does not address the issue except vague promise of effective Parliament without mentioning any specifics. JP and Jamaat also do not mention anything beyond the usual.
   
   Fighting corruption
   Corruption has been one of the biggest deterrents of our national growth – almost all Bangladeshis know that in principle.
   However, for a vast majority of our population, when it comes to coming to terms with the fact that a lot of our ‘jono-neta’ and ‘jono-netri’ are directly responsible for the corruption, we either go into a state of disbelief, denial, amnesia or just plain old virtue of forgiveness.
   Whether this is an exclusively Bangladeshi trait or not is debatable – but this is a fact that we have to
   live with (until our collective psyche makes a dramatic shift) and more importantly, take appropriate policies for.
   From an institutional perspective, we have two bodies that we generally turn to for fighting corruption – the Anti-Corruption Commission (through prosecuting corrupt people) and the Election Commission (through ensuring that those convicted cannot run for elections).
   Despite the importance of the judiciary on this issue, none of the party manifestos talk about judiciary independence and strengthening in the same breath as fighting corruption. There is a separate section for that, with the usual rhetoric.
   Also, none of the manifestos mention explicitly about the appointment process of the ACC and EC members, which is really the biggest factor behind their effectiveness and
   proper functioning. And curiously, while all parties mention fighting corruption as a major goal, JP puts little emphasis on this issue, hardly mentioning it at all.
   
   Separation of the judiciary
   The hallmark of separation of the judiciary from the executive branch of government is fairness of selection and promotion of judges. BNP, during their last term, made a complete mockery of this and we can only
   hope that they will learn from their mistakes.
   However, BNP’s manifesto does not reflect that they are giving special importance to this issue, avoiding providing any meaningful details on their strategy except to say that an independent secretariat under the Supreme Court will be formed to execute this.
   It boggles the mind to think how a secretariat under the Supreme Court is ensuring the separation of the judiciary. This is one issue that conscious citizens are going to put the BNP manifesto under the microscope for because of their abysmal track record, but there are no specifics to appease the doubtful mind.
   The AL manifesto at least recognises the basic problem head-on and states that the appointment and promotion of judges will be independent of political influence – whether they will implement it, if elected to power, is another issue.
   The age-old issue of secularism
   For those who still uphold the ideals of secularism as a fundamental tenet of our nationalism, it is possibly somewhat heartening to see that AL still uses that word profusely in their manifesto and even goes on to say the following – ‘use of religion for politics will be stopped’ – but does
   not explain what they really mean by that.
   In the name of political expedience, AL has more than once ‘partnered’ up or has expressed willingness to ‘partner’ up with parties that do use religion for politics.
   So, not many may believe that they really mean what they say in the manifesto, unless there is any reason to believe that they have evolved significantly in their thinking even with the same old leadership set firmly in place.
   No other major party even mentions that word as if it conveys a sense of being anti-Islamic.
   
   The trial of war criminals
   AL also remains the sole major party still voicing the issue of trial of war criminals, although quite meekly. Under the section on good governance, the manifesto mentions as the first point: ‘Terrorism and religious extremism will be controlled with iron hand.
   Trial of war criminals will be arranged’. The second sentence has no direct relevance to the first, but still they were lumped together in one point as if they were finding a place to put that issue in – is it that unimportant to not deserve a separate point in the manifesto?
   While I wish the manifestos were more revealing and made the choice easier for voters, we have to live
   with the fact that in Bangladeshi politics, we do not yet have a culture
   of holding the winning party’s feet to the fire based on their election promises.
   Until we have that culture, manifestos are not going to be much more than paper rhetoric – and we have to read between the lines to figure out what they want to say and what they want to avoid.

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