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Bangladesh poll at full throttle

Dhaka, Mon, 15 Dec 2008 Kazi Mohoshin Al Abbas

Overcoming all uncertainties, the 9th parliamentary election of Bangladesh is at full throttle as all political parties and alliances have joined in the campaign race from December 12 onwards. Though Election Commission of Bangladesh is yet to publish the final list of candidature; constituency negotiation, withdrawal of candidature and proclaiming election manifestos from major contesting parties had already been completed.

As of convention, big parties of the country started their campaign from the divisional head quarter of Sylhet, popularly known as holy city, by paying honor to two Muslim saints Hazrat Shajalal Rahmatulla Alaihe and Hazrat Shaparan Rahmatulla Alaihe. Awami League (AL) President Sheikh Hasina visited Sylhet on December 11 and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Chairperson Khaleda Zia performed the rituals on the next day. Respectively AL formally announced election manifestos on Dec 12 and BNP a day later. Earlier, the Jatio Party (JP) of HM Ershad, Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB), Jatio Samastantrik Dal (JSD), fundamentalist Jamate Islami and few other contesting parties declared their commitments to the people.

On December 11, the last date of the withdrawal of candidature, there emerged a big trouble in Mohajot over the constituency sharing between the Awami League-led 14-party alliance and JP. Jatio Party stood on their previous demand of at least 50 seats, however, AL and other partners were not in a compromising mood to fulfill the demands. After a big hassle, JP was made satisfied with 49. On that day, the EC had also extended the hour line of withdrawal from 5 pm to 10 pm.

As Awami League announced their election manifesto a day before than BNP, analysis appeared in the local press on the document. In one of those, it was mentioned that AL manifesto had been quick to come out of the domestic circuit to grab the global realities when it acknowledged the global financial meltdown as a prime concern. The realisation of an information depository as an utmost importance was evident of the fact that AL felt the urgency that the world events should be followed closely before taking effective measures. Mention of global warming as an issue for Bangladesh also reflected its better understanding of the globalisation process.

The other interesting proposal the manifesto cites, is the composition of GDP. The AL envisions a rise in industry's share in GDP from 25 percent to 45 percent, a fall in service sector's from 50 percent to 45 percent, and of agriculture's from 22 percent to 15 percent. This shift of gear is natural if an economy has to graduate to a better position. More industrial development means more employment, as the party sets specific employment goals as well. A lesser emphasis on the service sector means less stress on modernisation, but less stress on growth without employment. However, if agriculture slows down, that would throw a real challenge to employment and equality. Others might look at it from a different angle. As the economy becomes bigger and bigger, the agriculture even with a better growth as promised in the manifesto, might lose its share.

On the other hand, BNP manifesto said that this party will cut off special power act of 1974, which is a very talked about issue in the political and legal arena of the country. The similar commitment was being given to the people earlier but that was not fulfilled. Comprising 36 promises, BNP's election manifesto has been prepared underscoring a slogan "Save the Country, Save the People." After going to power, BNP will take result oriented steps to control price hike immediately. It will bring all food commodities within the reach of common people by increasing food production providing subsidy to agriculture sector, the manifesto mentioned.

By all means, the parliamentary election of Bangladesh is a focal point for the international community and press as well. In a recently published article The Economist said Sheikh Hasina’s control of the League remains absolute, and she appears confident of victory. Unlike her less pragmatic rival, she has welcomed back leaders who had dared to plot the party’s future without her. The League’s share of the popular vote was around 40% in 2001, when the BNP won in a landslide, with 193 out of 300 seats to the League’s 62. This time, 37% of voters are considering voting for a different party than in 2001, according to an opinion poll carried out by ACNielsen. The BNP claimed last time to have attracted the vast majority of first-time voters, but little is known about the preferences of 26m new voters this time. In all, nearly a quarter of all voters are undecided.

Despite this, the BNP, harder hit by the army’s anti-corruption drive, appears not to fancy its chances. The party has split into warring factions of Zia diehards and those whom she has not forgiven for their disloyalty. The diehards have worked to undermine the polls, accusing the election commission of bias. This week they insisted that convicted criminals be allowed to run for election. If that was unlikely to fly, the military met another demand on December 10th, as BNP leaders met to consider a poll boycott: it announced that the state of emergency in force since January 2007 would be lifted. Both parties welcomed the move, and the BNP said it was now ready to contest the polls.

Though the state of emergency is yet to be withdrawn totally the constituencies including the capital city Dhaka have gained a festival flavour. Workers and leaders of the contesting parties are enthusiastically involved in the campaign process. The VIP constituencies already attracted the mass in the process. Others are keeping it up slowly. Political Observers said that as of the character of election in Bangladesh, whether it is national or local, the upcoming one would be a festival. But the festival would be a fruitful one if all institutions of the country, machineries of the state made democratic by newly elected legislators. The people and the international community are waiting for that.

- The author is a Dhaka based senior journalist, writes for various media organisations. He can be reached at mabbas1961@yahoo.com -

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