Bangladesh and the crisis over the Caretaker Government

On the surface, the conflict that has erupted in Bangladesh is over the make-up of the caretaker government that according to the constitution is supposed to run the country in the three months up to a general election. The conflict apparently is between two bourgeois fronts. But underlying this political crisis is the extreme poverty of the masses who have reached the limits of human endurance.

The immediate issue that sparked off the present political crisis in Bangladesh was the conflict over the choice of the head of the caretaker authority to supervise the elections. After Bangladesh returned to so called democracy in 1991 following years of military rule, the two main political parties had agreed that the incumbent party would step down three months before every election and allow a "neutral" caretaker government to run the country and oversee the election commission until a new government was elected and sworn in. The immediate cause of the present unrest is one of the few things that the two main political parties, indeed the two women leaders, had ever agreed on since 1991.

To be more accurate, the women in question are more than mere prima ballerinas. They are the rival former Prime Ministers of the country, who despise each other and whose political organizations - complete with congenital corruption and violent tendencies - have been obstacles to any kind of genuine progress in Bangladesh for the past decade and a half. Khaleda Zia, 61, heads the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and is the widow of assassinated President Ziaur Rahman; and Sheikh Hasina, 59, leads the Awami League and is the daughter of Bangladesh's first President, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

This time, the Awami League accused the BNP of stacking the caretaker government and the electoral commission with partisans prior to standing down. Former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced earlier this month that therefore her coalition would boycott the poll and called for her supporters to "oppose" the "biased" elections. Bitter rival Khaleda Zia, who was prime minister until last October when she and her government stood down for the agreed-upon caretaker body to take over ahead of the election, insisted the poll should take place no matter what.

What is a Caretaker Government supposed to do?

In the parlance of institutional government of Bangladesh, a caretaker government is one which is supposed to take care of state administration for an interim period until the regular new government is formed. In an established parliamentary system, there is a convention of transformation of the outgoing government into a caretaker government for the time being before the holding of the general election. Such temporary government is supposed to only perform day-to-day administrative jobs, and not with policy initiating functions which may influence the election results. During this period the caretaker government is supposed to maintain a neutral status for ensuring free and fair general elections. Of course, this is what it is "supposed" to do. In reality the real balance of forces between the contending parties leads to a different situation.

The reason why such a set up was established in Bangladesh is clear. The demand for neutral caretaker government largely originated from a lack of trust in the political government under which the election was held. The past tradition of Bangladesh was one of rigged and fraudulent elections, and such malpractices were usually carried out by the outgoing government in power misusing their authority. The idea was that an interim authority would be acceptable to both the ruling as well as opposition parties. Its role was to complete the election process within three months, after which the elected government was expected to take charge. The 2001 elections were in fact held under the caretaker government as per the constitution. Those elections were won by the BNP coalition and Begum Khalida Zia came to power.

But this time the Awami League led opposition coalition declared that the ruling coalition would manipulate the present caretaker government system of conducting elections in Bangladesh in the future, thus making it more difficult for the opposition to win an election. Hence it has been demanding electoral reforms since July 2005 through street protests. It wants certain changes in the Caretaker government system and the Election Commission. Though some attempts were made to resolve the controversy, the deep-rooted hostility between the two political parties kept them poles apart. On the eve of the transfer of power to the interim authority a last ditch attempt was made to resolve the controversy. But both sides failed to agree on any of 31 electoral reforms that the Awami League had proposed to ensure fair voting in polls due in January 2007.

The main problem was the choice of the head of the caretaker authority to supervise the election. Khaleda's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) wanted former chief justice K.M. Hasan in the post of caretaker chief, but the opposition Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina opposed him on the ground of his earlier associations with the ruling party. The other main dispute was over the opposition's demand for the removal of the chief election commissioner M.A. Aziz and his deputies, who are accused of having a pro-BNP bias.

A significant development took place on the eve of transfer of power to the interim authority in Bangladesh. The earlier chief advisor designate, former chief justice KM Hasan refused to accept the responsibility in view of the widespread violence in the country. The president of Bangladesh received the letter from Justice KM Hasan declining the job offer on October 27, 2006. After this the president held a meeting with BNP Secretary General Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan and Awami League General Secretary Abdul Jalil and offered himself as the chief adviser.

Following this, President Iajuddin Ahmed on October 29 assumed the office of chief adviser to the non-party caretaker government in addition to his presidential responsibilities. However in November 2006, after an emergency meeting with the 14-party leaders at her residence in the capital, Awami League (AL) President Sheikh Hasina said that "there is certainly a question about the neutrality of the president" and wanted him removed from the post of chief adviser of the caretaker government.

As the political crisis deepened, the Bangladeshi President Iajuddin Ahmed declared a state of emergency on January 12, 2007 and resigned as head of the interim caretaker government that was to serve in the period leading up to the elections. He will however, remain as President. He has also delayed the elections from 22 January to an unspecified date.

The new head of the caretaker government will be Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former governor of the nation's central bank. This little fact shows what the "impartiality" of the caretakers government really means. He is a direct representative of finance capital and therefore belongs to the ruling elite, the ruling class. His "impartiality" cannot bridge the gap between the classes! His nomination is based on a consensus between the two major political coalitions - both bourgeois coalitions ‑ and his task will be to begin the reconstitution of the interim government. The president will now appoint ten advisers within a day or two, consulting with the newly appointed Chief Adviser to complete the reconstitution of the council of advisers to the caretaker government that will initiate a fresh move for holding the next parliamentary election.

The underlying conflict between the contending parties can be seen in their farcical behaviour over recent months. Interestingly, the BNP-led four-party alliance which had welcomed Iajuddin's assumption of the office of Chief Adviser and who had attended his oath taking ceremony on October 29, 2006 in Bangabhaban, boycotted the oath taking ceremony of the new Chief Adviser. But the Awami League (AL)-led 14-party coalition and Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that had boycotted the oath taking ceremony of Iajuddin as the Chief Adviser, protesting his 'unconstitutional takeover of the post', attended the function in Bangabhaban. Flanked by senior leaders of the party and its allies the BNP chairperson on October 29 2006 attended the function of Iajuddin taking over as the Chief Adviser, but none of them turned up at the ceremony of Dr Fakhruddin taking over as the Chief Adviser.

The Economic Situation

As we can see, desperate attempts have been made to patch up the crisis. The conflict between the mainstream parties has spilled onto the streets, a very dangerous development from the point of view of the ruling elite. Now, although some agreement has been reached, the political crisis is far from over. The political crisis is merely an expression of the terrible economic impasse the country is in. The next step depends on how the BNP will take on this new situation in the coming days.

The fact is that none of these parties care for the poor workers and the downtrodden. The economic situation has gone from bad to worse since the political crisis started last year. The serious transport blockades, general strikes and suspension of operations of Chittagong port are an indication of the anger of the masses, who are demanding something be done for them.

Bangladesh is in fact one of the poorest countries in the world. The gross domestic product (GDP) of the country in 2000 was estimated at 48 billion dollars at 1995 prices. Compare this GDP figure with Bill Gates' personal current assets of 40 billion dollars! The wealth of one man is almost equal to that of a nation of over one million. Over the period 1949-50 to 1976-77, the growth in real per capita income in Bangladesh was not much above zero. The annual rate of growth in GDP was 2.7 percent over this period compared to a rate of population growth of 2.6%, thus hardly moving per capita.

The present economic situation is not much better either. GDP growth rate between 1991-2000 was 5%. The current annual population growth rate is 1.5 percent, but these figures hide the disproportionate spread of wealth across the population. Malnutrition and maternal mortality rates are still among the highest in the world, and at least one in three mothers in Bangladesh gives birth without ever having seen a health practitioner.

In 1995-1997, 12.4% of export earning went on debt servicing. The present national poverty rate is 35.6%. On average 77.8% of the total population live on 2 dollars a day. 42.8% of the total income is earned by the richest 20% of the population. The GDP growth rate has increased but proportionally the gap between the rich and the poor has widened.

Successive military and bourgeois governments have attempted to solve the problem of land-tenure, land ownership, and rural indebtedness by appointing royal or non-royal Commissions, and tidal waves of rhetoric have been spilled by all governments with conferences, seminars, and workshops with banner headlines in the news media, with each successive government claiming to have outdone the previous government. They have all claimed to have applied policies that are "poverty-oriented", "production-oriented", and that they have brought sunshine into the lives of rural people. To that end since the days of the Ayub regime, we have had the Comilla Experiment, Basic Democracy, Food for Works programme, Integrated Rural Development Programme and finally the so-called "poverty alleviation programmes" of foreign and national NGOs. All of these programmes mainly benefited the large farmers, while the small farmers have largely been left out.

The following empirical data are sufficient to give an idea of the real situation: 33% of households in rural Bangladesh are landless and another 15% own less than half an acre of agricultural land which is far less than subsistence requirements. The proportion of landless households in rural areas increased from an estimated 18% in 1961 to 33% in 1977; this during a period of consistent agricultural growth. By 1989, fifty million people in Bangladesh ‑ almost half of the then 111 million population ‑ fell into the category of the rural landless poor. Owning less than 0.5 of an acre of land, and many none at all, they are the people who most often face the greatest difficulty in surviving and in rising above total poverty. The majority of the rural landless live, at best, in small shelters built, typically, with a bamboo frame, jute or bamboo walls and a thatched roof, achieving very little resistance to floods, cyclones and insect attack, and providing little security for their belongings or the occupants. The occupants are the same people most frequently at risk from storms and floods.

Because of a combination of an increasing supply of labour (growth of landless peasants) and decreasing demand for labour through sub-division holdings (due to lack of any other means of livelihood besides landholdings) which concentrates small tracts of land in the hands of smaller peasants who are less likely to hire labour, there was a decline of about 50% in the real value of agricultural wages (prices of wage-goods were increasing sharply due to agricultural stagnation and massive inflationary pressure on domestically produced goods) between 1965 and 1975. As a result of these trends, the proportion of "absolutely poor" households increased from 52% to 87% from 1963 to 1973-74 and the proportion of "extremely poor" households jumped from 10% to 54%. In 1994 a survey was carried out by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) which found that the poverty trends show little change over 80 years since 1910. The findings of BIDS research was that 52% of rural people in Faridpur, for example, lived in absolute poverty.

The head count measure of rural poverty went down slightly during the first half of the nineties: from 53% in 1991/92 to 51% in 1995/96. Over the entire period between 1983/84 and 1995/96, the rural head count declined by only 2.7 percentage points. There is an improvement in the urban poverty situation in Bangladesh during the nineties from 34% in 1991/92 to little over 26% in 1995/96. This trend of a degree of improvement in urban poverty is due to the rapid pace of urbanisation over the recent years.

Despite the faster rate of poverty reduction in the urban areas, its overall impact on the poverty state of the nation has been rather modest due to the low weight of overall urban population. According to the recent World Bank estimates, the national head-count declined by only 0.5 percentage points per year during 1983-95.

Foreign aid and loans

Aid currently finances four fifths of the development budget and provides approximately half of the government's total finance. Aid is now equivalent to more than 10% of the country's gross domestic product. Aid fills the country's large trade deficit which is almost double its current level of export-earnings. Thus the country is hugely dependent on foreign aid. This underlines the total inability of the Bangladeshi ruling class to develop the country, in spite of the government's rhetoric on "self-reliance". The government finds it much easier to rely on the flow of capital from abroad than to develop the economy from local resources. Aid also promotes patronage and corruption by keeping all kinds of regimes afloat which would otherwise sink under the weight of popular discontent. In Bangladesh, aid has financed narrow, elite-based governments which cling to power by suppressing political dissent.

Bangladesh's poverty is rooted in the social order which benefits a small elite at the expense of the poor majority. The elite holds power from the national government down to the village level, and it is through this elite that foreign aid is channelled. Under such conditions foreign investors can expect their aid dollars to perpetuate rather than "alleviate" poverty in Bangladesh. Though 85%-90% of the population is rural only one third of government rationed foodgrains go to rural areas and often not to the needy. In a country where survival often depends on access to arable land, 33% of households are landless and another 29% survive from holdings of an acre or less.

Within three years of independence back in the 1970s, the new nation received 2.5 billion US dollars in aid commitments, more than it had received in its 25 years as East Pakistan. Today aid flows to Bangladesh at a rate of almost a billion dollars per year. Since independence Bangladesh has received over 30 billion dollars in foreign aid. Much of it comes from the US and the EU. Many people in the industrialised countries may well wonder at the fact that despite years of foreign aid involving billions of dollars, the world's poor are becoming even poorer.

The answer to this riddle lies in the real nature of world capitalism. Imperialism dominates the international economy and through it bends to its will the national governments of the weaker countries. In this regard, the international economic and political set up developed in the post-war years in these countries corresponds to the needs of world capitalism, not the urban and rural poor of countries like Bangladesh. Imperialist international economic policy is partly implemented through the various economic entities such as the World Bank, IMF, OECD, etc., and it is essentially oriented to devising the economic and institutional support mechanisms which sustain the internationalisation of capital.

Imperialism is essentially concerned with the regulation of trade and of the international monetary system to the benefit of the multinational corporations that operate from the advanced countries, and the monitoring of capital flows, by the World Bank, for instance are directed towards infrastructural investment projects in the periphery (mainly for population control, insurgency control, and building up civil and military organizations to contain peasant revolts and communist activities), which in the sophisticated language of the World Bank constitute "external economies" for private foreign investment.

The role of the World Bank has to be understood in the context of the expansion of international capital in the so-called "Third World" countries. Its aim is to integrate the agriculture of these countries into the needs of multinational agribusiness. Its sole aim is to assure profitable products for the global market, to extract surplus value from agricultural production, not to meet the real needs of the local population.

Revolutionary change is needed

Over the past 14 years, with the so-called democratic elections, the past and present governments of the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have been riddled with corruption and bureaucracy. Economic development in Bangladesh has been much less than its actual potential. This is due to imperialist domination and the utter inability of the local bourgeois to be anything other than a loyal servant of their foreign masters. In this, the different cliques that make up the local ruling elite have been in constant conflict with one another. At the same time, the anger of the masses has been expressed in the frequent hartals (general strikes).

What we have is government paralysis, corruption and a general worsening of basic civilised conditions of life. The irony of the situation is the confrontation between the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which constitutes the core of the current ruling alliance, and the Awami League, the biggest opposition party. The conflict is not over how best to defend the interests of the teeming millions of poor, but how best to defend this or that clique within the ruling elite. To the masses this conflict is an alien one and that is shown by the recurrence of hartals (general strikes). The masses are thirsting for real change, not cosmetic changes at the top.

All the masses see is an inefficient public administration and a corrupt judicial system. Low pay to public servants is also a major reason for widespread corruption, not just at the top. It becomes a way of surviving in a brutal society. What the masses see in the field of education and healthcare is no different either. The overall quality of education in the country has deteriorated to such an extent that every year the so-called elites send their children to schools abroad. But, apart from those who feel they can reap a big economic benefit by going back, very few of them return to the country. Healthcare is so inadequate and antiquated that those who can pay always seek healthcare outside the country. In the midst of this general decline, we see the crime rate shooting up. It has risen so much that in 2002 the government felt obliged to deploy the army to combat petty crime! But evidently that made little difference as the crime rate in the country has continued to rise day by day.

The biggest obstacle for Bangladesh and other so-called underdeveloped countries is the domination of imperialism and the existence of capitalism. This system is incapable of meeting the basic human requirements of food, clothing and shelter. It is no surprise that crime is on the increase. The roots of poverty in most so-called underdeveloped countries can be traced to the era of colonial rule. Far from "developing" these countries, colonial rule meant many years of neglect and oppression at the hands of the colonial powers. After the colonial powers were forced to leave and abandon direct military control, they continued to dominate through the local comprador bourgeois elite, who have run these countries with the mere aim of enriching themselves personally while carrying out the dictates of their imperialist masters. Within the context of capitalism and imperialism, there is no way out for the peoples of countries like Bangladesh.

So, rather than "poverty alleviation", what is essentially needed is a revolutionary change, a revolutionary transformation of society. This means expropriating the corrupt local bourgeoisie and the imperialists. Bangladesh could be the spark that sets off the all-South Asian socialist revolution. In a Socialist Federation of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and the rest of the South-Asian subcontinent, the resources would be available to massively develop the economy of all these countries. Once the dead hand of capitalism and landlordism is lifted the people would be free to develop their economies harmoniously in an international plan of production.

But the problem is that this kind of change does not fall from the sky. To bring about this kind of change it would require a genuine revolutionary leadership of the Bangladeshi workers and peasants. Without such a leadership no real revolutionary change is possible. Without this it is not possible for a nation to turn its situation around. The potential for revolution is there. It needs to be channelled.

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