Need to sustain growth momentum as nation goes to polls  

Shahiduzzaman Khan   | Published: December 29, 2018 22:11:46

All eyes are now focused on today's (Sunday's) parliamentary elections in Bangladesh. Major global media outlets and the international community are keeping the world guessing on today's much-awaited election in the country.

The Election Commission (EC) has assured the citizens that the parliamentary elections would be held in a free, fair and inclusive manner. However, many think sporadic violence might take place in some place during the polls time.

The international media, while pointing to the crackdown on the opposition alliance during the polls campaigning and governance issues during the last one decade, laid emphasis also on the political stability, economic growth, socio-economic development and the halting of political violence.

A total of 1,840 candidates from major political alliances --Awami League (AL)-led 'Moha Jote' (grand alliance) and BNP-led Jatiya Oikya Front-- and independent ones are contesting the 11th parliamentary elections. A total of 39 political parties are contesting the elections from 299 constituencies.

Nearly 104.20 million voters -- 52.54 million male, 51.64 million female and 12.30 million youths -- would exercise their voting rights to elect a new parliament for next five years. It is believed that the participation of youth voters would leave a significant impact on the electoral race. The contesting political parties have included pledges like job creation and quality education in their election manifestos to attract young voters.  

Reports quoting businessmen said political stability must continue as it had greatly helped businesses to grow. However, amid concerns on widespread violence, mistrust and clashes between the ruling and opposition party men, the United Nations (UN) has called for a "peaceful, credible and inclusive" election.

Late last week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made a passionate call for 'an environment free of violence, intimidation and coercion' to allow peaceful, credible and inclusive polls. The United States has also wished all Bangladeshis a free, fair, tolerant and peaceful election.

The country is set to decide today whether to grant a record third consecutive term to a prime minister who has overseen, according to the British newspaper Guardian, one of the fastest growing economies in the world.  But the paper also accused the government of rampant human rights abuses. 

The Guardian reported that Prime Minister Hasina was hoping Bangladesh's 100 million voters would ignore the violence and focus on the country's extraordinary economic progress including the tripling of per-capita income since 2009 and an annual average growth rate above 6.0 per cent in the past decade -- the fastest in the developing world.

The international media have also highlighted Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC)'s ordering the shutdown of high-speed mobile internet services in a bid 'to curb the spread of confusing content'. Facebook and Twitter said last week they had removed accounts and fake news pages linked to the government that had posted anti-opposition content.

The Awami League is promoting its economic record over the past decade but the BNP-led opposition alliance has vowed to remove curbs on the media, increase wages and freeze energy prices.

Despite earning global plaudits for sheltering nearly a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, the nine-year tenure of incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was marked by allegations of creeping authoritarianism, crushing of political rivals and a gag on media freedom, said Aljazeera, a Gulf-based newspaper.

Earlier this year, Bangladesh, met the UN criteria for graduating from "least developed country" to become a developed country by 2024. Such an elevation to "developing economy" means a significant boost to the nation's self-image.

With a national strategy focussed on manufacturing - dominated by the garment industry - the country has seen exports soar by an average annual rate of 15-17 per cent in recent years to reach a record $36.7b by June this year. They are on track to meet the government's goal of $39b in 2019.

For the present, Dhaka has become a hub of a small but growing technology sector led by chief executives who talk boldly about surpassing neighbouring India in IT. Pharmaceutical manufacturing is also witnessing robust growth. The government is now implementing an ambitious scheme to build a network of 100 special economic zones around the country.

But the country is not performing well in drawing foreign direct investment (FDI). Although it has tripled during the incumbent government's nine years in office -- from $961m in fiscal 2008 to nearly $3bn this year -- this compares poorly with other Asian countries, including Vietnam and Myanmar.

The government has moved to streamline the investment process with the creation of a "one-stop" investor service intended to replicate similar services in Singapore and Vietnam. But this has not yet gained momentum.

Aided by a fast-growing manufacturing sector - its garment industry is second only to China's - Bangladesh's economy has averaged more than 6.0 per cent annual growth for nearly a decade, reaching 7.86 per cent in the year through June.

According to a Bloomberg report, ruling Awami League -- which has presided over the years of high economic growth and has handled the influx of 750,000 Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Myanmar -- is widely expected to return to power. That outcome would ensure economic policy continuity and help sustain a steady flow of foreign investment, it said.

World leaders have, in the meantime, called on all stakeholders to ensure an environment free of violence, intimidation and coercion during and after today's general election in Bangladesh. In the run-up to the polls, an environment free from violence would help enable a peaceful, credible and inclusive election, they said.

It is important that all the citizens, including minorities and women, must feel safe and confident in exercising their right to vote. Civil society and electoral observers should be fully supported to play their role in the process.

In any democratic election there must be space for peaceful expression and assembly; for independent media to do its job covering electoral developments; for participants to have access to information; and for all individuals to be able to take part in the electoral process without harassment, intimidation, or violence. The country believes that such a situation exists in Bangladesh and it wishes all its citizens a free, fair, tolerant and peaceful election day.

Whatever the election results might be, it is necessary to show utmost tolerance to each other in the electoral process during and after the elections. It should be remembered that only stability could sustain the country's growth momentum.

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