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January 13, 2019

The highs and lows of governance


January 13, 2019

It is classified among the world’s least-developed countries (LDC) by the UN. But as its economy has gone down a bomb in recent years, it has left even several developing nations in the dust. Notwithstanding the streak of success that the country has enjoyed in the economic sphere, it has been thrown into a tailspin in the political realm. A multi-party polity has almost been reduced to a one-party state. With all its highs and lows, the country in question is Bangladesh.

Over the last 10 years, Bangladesh’s economy has registered an average annual growth rate of 6.2 percent, with the growth rate recorded at 7.1 percent in 2016 and 7.2 percent in 2017. The estimated growth rate for 2018 is over seven percent. This makes Bangladesh one of the fastest growing economies in Asia. The size of the economy has nearly tripled from $91 billion in 2008 to $250 billion in 2017. The per capita income has more than doubled from $615 to $1,516 over this period.

Sound and sustained economic growth has been undergirded by remarkable export performance. Exports have scaled up from $15 billion in 2008 to $41 billion in 2017. Value-added textiles remain the backbone of Bangladesh’s economy. In 2017, garment exports reached $35 billion from $12 billion in 2008, making Bangladesh the globe’s third-largest apparel exporter after China and the EU.

The upturn in key macroeconomic indicators has been accompanied by human capital development. The literacy rate has gone up to 72 percent – which includes the country’s female literacy rate of 69 percent – from 47 percent in 2008; population growth has been reduced to one percent; life expectancy has increased to 72 years (higher than 68 years for India and 66 years for Pakistan) from 69 years in 2008; and the infant mortality rate has spiralled down to 26.9 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2017 from 43.3 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2008.

It may be noted that while Bangladesh was making these socioeconomic strides, it continued to be classified as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. In 2017, it was ranked on the 143rd position on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index – much worse than Pakistan’s 117th position. This not only suggests that graft runs deep in the Bangladesh polity, but it also warns us against postulating a link between a country’s economic stagnation (or expansion) and its level of corruption.

Corruption apart, how did Bangladesh become a success story? To begin with, the government – assisted by NGOs – adopted an inclusive growth strategy and invested substantially in human-resource development. The importance attached to the education of girls has given women a greater voice in households and public affairs.

The robust growth of the all-important garment industry was made possible through the large size of the enterprises along with lenient labour laws and low wages, which curtailed the cost of production. These domestic factors were given a leg-up by the country’s LDC status, which conferred duty-free access on its exports in most of the world’s major markets.

In contrast with Bangladesh, Pakistan’s economic performance has been rather ragged. Over the last decade, the economy grew by 3.7 percent on average while the per capita income registered a modest growth from $1,039 to $1,547. The country has done even worse in terms of export growth. The year 2017 closed with exports standing at $21 billion as compared with 2008 when exports were worth $20 billion. Between those years, exports marginally crossed the $25-billion mark both in 2011 and 2013. Pakistan certainly has a lot to learn from Bangladesh in the economic sphere.

At the same time, there is one major area where Bangladesh has taken a turn for the worse and where Pakistan has fared far better in recent years: democracy. Democracy in Bangladesh has a chequered history, with the armed forces being in the driving seat most of the time. Dynasties have dominated politics, taking turns in the exercise of power. Politics has been characterised by intense personal confrontations between key players, which has polarised society and made the democratic facade look like a house of cards.

After the demise of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – the country’s founder and the first prime minister – the leadership of the Awami League was assumed by his daughter Sheikh Hasina Wajid. With time, another political dynasty crept up. Its founder was General Ziaur Rahman, the nation’s first military ruler. Zia’s assassination in 1981 catapulted his wife Khaleda Zia and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to the political centre-stage. After a decade-long military rule, democracy was revived in 1990. Since then – except for a brief hiatus – the country’s politics has largely been defined by a war of attrition between both women.

Khaleda Zia’s BNP won the 1991 and 1996 elections and she served as prime minister. The outcome of the 1996 polls was unique in that the BNP won all the 300 seats as opposition parties chose not to contest. This reduced the credibility of the electoral exercise. Khaleda was forced to step down in 1996 and a caretaker government supervised fresh elections, which ushered in her archrival’s victory.

Khaleda returned to power in 2001 and governed until 2006. But Khaleda’s 2006 exit didn’t bring Sheikh Hasina to power. Instead, it gave birth to what is commonly known as the ‘Bangladesh model’ in which a caretaker government, backed by the armed forces and blessed by the judiciary, governed the country and imprisoned both women on corruption charges.

With time, the Bangladesh model went down like a lead balloon, as both the former premiers were released within a year. In the 2008 elections, luck smiled on Sheikh Hasina. The highlight of her tenure was the abolition of the constitutional provision for a caretaker government – as currently incorporated within our constitution as well – to hold elections, which meant that the ruling party would remain at the helm after the dissolution of parliament.

Sheikh Hasina went on to win the 2014 elections, which were boycotted by the BNP owing to the absence of a neutral caretaker setup. Out of the 300 seats, 153 went uncontested. In the recent elections (December 2018), marred by violence and widespread rigging allegations, the Awami League once again made a clean sweep, winning in 288 constituencies. A year before the polls, Khaleda was convicted of corruption and was, therefore, rendered ineligible to run for public office.

It is evident that the movers and shakers in Bangladesh have chosen a governance model that rests on the pillars of economic liberalism and political repression. There is no causal link between the economic and political verities of liberalism. Bangladesh is also not the first country where economic openness and progress has gone hand-in-hand with suppression of opposition and dissent. China, Russia, Malaysia, Turkey and Singapore are some other examples.

The essential idea underlying this governance model is that for a nation aspiring to make progress, freedom of enterprise is far more important than civil and political liberties, and that the people value jobs and higher standards of living more than the right to vote or dissent. By implication, citizens are willing to have their voices muzzled as long as their economic needs are taken care of. Another implication of this model is that democratic checks and balances on the government can, and ought to be, set aside in the interest of efficiency and service-delivery.

Is this ‘efficient’ governance model sound? Well, the answer hinges on whether you place a high premium on the intrinsic value of democracy. Pluralists, who believe that freedom of expression, the right to dissent and the right to have a government of one’s choice are fundamental rights that can never be bartered away for enhanced economic opportunities or any other promised payoff, will have no use for the model. By contrast, pragmatists will lap it up, provided that it shows ‘good’ results.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi

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