At a time when the public’s faith in politicians is faced with a withering assault, election manifestos, given their non-binding nature, may seem to be an almost quixotic exercise. Yet with a consensus around the issue of democracy as our preferred system of governance, the young electorate is learning to focus on the quality of the exercise. The growing awareness and citizen activism in an age of vibrant social media mean political parties can no more treat the election agenda as a ritual. One of the consequences is the renewed focus on the manifesto as the central document dictating a government’s mandate.
This has been the case since 2008, when the manifestos published by the two parties met with considerable scrutiny during the campaign period, and over the last 10 years, we have seen countless instances of journalists and other political commentators bringing up the 2008 Awami League manifesto - which had as its main author Finance Minister A.M.A. Muhith, setting the stage for his 10-year run - in critiquing the government. So it can be an enriching exercise as well towards attaining democratic maturity. Similarly the government is wont to bringing up its ‘manifesto promise’ of putting the war criminals from 1971 on trial, and ensuring justice for their victims. An almost identical issue is the case of the Bangabandhu killers, which also enjoyed prominence in the AL manifesto that year.
The trouble often starts not when political parties don’t do what is in their manifestos, but rather when they do what is not in them. Arguably the most consequential act undertaken by the successive AL regimes in place since their victory in the December 2008 election, was the scrapping of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, thereby getting rid of the caretaker government provision for holding elections. That controversial act, made possible thanks to the two-thirds majority enjoyed by the AL-led “Grand Coalition” in parliament, continues to reverberate in the political arena, having deprived the 2014 parliamentary election of much legitimacy. With no fix in sight, and incessant complaints surrounding obstacles to campaigning faced by the opposition candidates, it is perhaps no surprise that the issue of the scrapped amendment - the election-time administration and governance of Bangladesh - stands out as one of the major points of contention in the two manifestos unveiled on behalf of the two main political factions this week, in the run-up to Election Day on December 30.
Defending the record
Bangladesh Awami League on December 18 unveiled its 21-point manifesto for the upcoming 11th parliamentary elections, promising to ensure urban facilities in every village and using the nascent potential in the country’s youth population for the progress of the country with the slogan - ‘Bangladesh on the march towards prosperity’.
AL President Sheikh Hasina read out the summary of the election manifesto at a function held at Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel. The manifesto focuses on 33 sectors to work under two strategic plans for making Bangladesh a hunger- and poverty- free country, and educated and secular nation. Hasina said if Awami League is voted to power, it will further strengthen the ongoing process of institutionalising democracy while initiatives will be taken to make Parliament more effective. “At the same time, efforts will continue to strengthen the National Human Rights Commission, Anti-Corruption Commission, media and judiciary.”
“If we’re voted to power, we’ll undertake and implement programmes aimed at turning villages into townships. The facilities of towns will reach the villages. In the next five years, electricity will be provided to every house. All the villages of the country will be connected with upazila/zila through pucca roads,” said Hasina.
“If we come to power, we’ll create employment opportunities for 12.8 million (1.28 crore) people in the next five years. Employment opportunities for 1,000 youths from each upazila will be created outside the country,” she added.
Alongside ensuring universal human rights, any attempt to trample the human rights will be prevented while efforts to ensure the independence and effectiveness of the National Human Rights Commission will continue, she said. Hasina said work on building a modern, technology-based, skilled, corruption-free patriot mass-oriented administration will continue, and transparency, accountability, fairness and service of the administration will be ensured. The AL chief said the campaign against militancy, drugs and corruption will continue. The highest priority will be given to uprooting terrorism, extortion and land-grabbing, she said.
“We’ll take a zero-tolerance policy against corruption. Apart from strengthening the Anti-Corruption Commission, public awareness programme against the menace will be strengthened. Besides, steps will be taken to bring corruption to zero level utilising ICT.”
About the decentralisation of power, Hasina said UP, upazila and zila parishads, pourasava and city corporations have been strengthened through decentralisation of power and the process will further be strengthened. “If we come to power, more financial and administrative authorities will be decentralised to local government bodies. The government’s assistance and efforts will continue to widen and improve civic amenities.”
She vowed to increase the GDP growth to 10 percent in the next five years while the per capita income of the people of Bangladesh will be over US$ 5,479 in 2030. Hasina also said the scope for education of children in a better environment will be ensured where potable water and improved sanitation will be ensured. Infrastructures for healthy entertainment and sports will be built.
About the utilisation of youths in making prosperity for the country, she said Bangladesh Awami League is committed to building an organised, disciplined and production-oriented youth force.
Hasina said an integrated database for less educated, medium educated and higher educated youths will be prepared at the national level.
“We’re providing up to Tk 200,000 collateral-free loan through Karmasangsthan Bank to increase entrepreneurship and self-employment. In the future, the facilities will be widened.” For ensuring a healthy entertainment for youths, she said, an entertainment centre will be built at each upazila and a youth sports complex at each district. She also promised to reduce child marriage to near zero.
Mentioning that 4.92 crore (49.2 million) people are now getting various forms of financial assistance under the social safety net programmes, Hasina said, “In the next five years, the number will be doubled and the amount of assistance will also be increased. The poverty rate will be decreased to 12.3 percent and that of extreme poverty to 5 percent.”
“A modern industrial city will be built on the banks of the Padma River, while an IT park will be established in each divisional city employing a huge number of youths in the next five years,” the AL president said.
She said all the basic rights of workers will be protected and a four-month maternity leave with full salary for female workers will be materialised. “A rationing system for all workers, hardcore poor and rural landless farm labourers will be introduced.” She also said the regular income for at least one member of a family will be ensured.
Hasina said the highest budget allocation will be ensured for the education sector and all-out steps will be taken for improving the standard of education. She said children under the age of one and citizens aged over 65 years will get free health services. The ruling party chief said bullet train services between Dhaka and divisional cities will be introduced. In the next five years, 10,000-kms of waterways will be dredged.
The four rivers around Dhaka will be re-excavated and a new international airport will be set up while the existing domestic and international airports will be modernised. A tunnel will be constructed under the Jamuna River to ease communication with northern region, she said. “If we’re voted to power, we’ll introduce 5G mobile network service by 2021-23. The price of internet and mobile usage will be reduced to a reasonable level.”
To face the climate change impacts, Hasina announced to increase the size of the productive forest from 13 percent in 2015 to 20 percent.
“Special steps will be taken to preserve the memories of the Liberation War throughout the country, prevent the distortion of history and protect the genuine one,“ said the AL chief. At the same time, Bangladesh will be built with a non-communal spirit. “There’ll be no law against Quran and Sunnah.All kinds of laws and systems that are discriminatory towards ethnic minorities and ethnic groups will be scrapped.”
In a somewhat strange commitment for a party manifesto, the prime minister promised news media which are “loyal to social commitments” will be promoted from the government side. “Investigative journalism will be inspired and necessary training for journalists will be ensured. The security of journalists and media staff will be ensured for their professional duties. Media-friendly acts will be formulated. There’ll be no misuse of any law against journalists and mass media.”
About the Delta Plan 2100 unveiled earlier, she mentioned that the government has taken the 100-year plan to face the challenges of climate change to achieve the desired development of the country. “This plan will be helpful to attain the status of the middle-income country by 2030 and a developed one by 2041. The Delta Plan 2100 will create bondage among short- mid- and long-term planning.”
Hasina said Awami League does not believe in words but in deeds. “The commitment of this time is that we will ensure sustainable investment and inclusive development.”
She mentioned that it is clear as daylight that the people of Bangladesh get something when Awami League government runs the country. Opportunities and potential of livelihoods and welfare of general people are created. Yet in a much talked-about closing gambit, the prime minister perhaps acknowledged some of the distance that has grown between her party and the country over the course of the last 10 years, issuing an almost unreserved apology for any misdeeds:
“To err is human. There may have been mistakes from my part or my colleagues while discharging duties. I, on behalf of my own and the party, would like to request the country’s people to forgive the mistakes,” she said.
The same day, the BNP rolled out its own election manifesto with a set of promises that prioritised democracy as an ‘everyday practice’, towards building a vengeance-free Bangladesh and raising GDP growth to 11 percent.
It also pledged to scrap the controversial Digital Security Act, Official Secrecy Act and other black laws if voted to power in the 11th parliamentary elections. BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir unveiled the party’s 19-point manifesto at a city hotel almost simultaneously as the PM was unveiling the AL’s.
“I’m announcing the manifesto on behalf of former prime minister and BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia and I want to assure you that no revenge will be taken against anyone if BNP is voted to power,” said Fakhrul, hinting at a fear of ‘disorderly transition’ that or ‘win at all costs’ on the part of the government that may prevent a fair election.
The BNP leader said people’s ownership of the country will be consolidated if their party returns to power. “We’ll turn the practice of democracy into an everyday affair.”
That the BNP came up with its own manifesto a day after the alliance of which it is the major component,Jatiya Oikyafront, presented one raised some eyebrows. The two manifestos are almost identical, upon scrutiny. Yet there is a key difference. Though Jatiya Oikyafront pledged to continue the trial of war criminals started under AL, the pledge is missing from the nine-page summary of the BNP manifesto read out by Fakhrul that was handed out to journalists.
As his attention was drawn to the matter, the BNP secretary general said he only presented a short version of their manifesto. “You’ll find that in our full version of the manifesto on our website.”
The party, however, did not provide the journalists with the copies of its full manifesto. And its website has been down for weeks.
BNP’s promises also include ensuring the balance between the power of the President and the Prime Minister, making public the probe reports on BDR carnage and Bangladesh Bank reserve heist, and reopening investigations into the incidents.
The promises also include restoration of referendum system in the Constitution for establishing people’s democratic rights, introducing an upper House of Parliament involving people of all walks of life, increased representation of women in all the constitutional bodies, and the most talked about feature perhaps - introducing a more balanced relationship between the president and prime minister, ostensibly by increasing the powers of the former at the expense of the latter.
Fakhrul also announced that steps will be taken so that one-party rule does not return to the country and to check corruption. A judicial commission will be formed for reforming the judiciary if BNP is voted to power, he said.
He said no ongoing development projects will be stopped, but probes will be carried out to examine whether there is any corruption in the mega projects. A parliament of youths will be formed for ensuring the interests of the youth, he said. He also said 5 percent of GDP will be set aside for the education sector.
The BNP leader also said steps will be taken to ease traffic and remove public sufferings during the movement of the President and the Prime Minister. He also announced that a national commission will be formed to introduce a new political culture to get rid of the politics of vengeance, and also that an Ombudsman will be appointed to ensure the transparency and accountability of administration.
An additional armed police battalion will be constituted bringing a change in the existing structure of the Rapid Action Battalion, which is something of a climbdown for the party given its role in the creation of RAB.
Another much talked-about pledge If BNP is voted to power is that there will be no age limit for entering government jobs, except those of defence, police and Ansar. The control of lower courts will bestowed upon the Supreme Court by amending the Article 116 of the Constitution.
Fakhrul said freedom of expression will be ensured by removing online surveillance programs and steps will be taken to end extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearances, killings and inhuman physical and mental torture. The formation of a South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission in this regard to deal with the past cases is particularly notable.
Zila Parishads will be elected through people’s direct vote and city government will be introduced in municipal areas. Two hundred thousand will be given public jobs based on merit and qualifications in the first three years of the government, while steps will be taken to create 1 crore jobs during the 5-year tenure of the government, he said.
Some other promises of BNP include appointing the deputy speaker in parliament from the opposition, providing educated unemployed youths with allowances, revoking all types of VAT on students, withdrawing all cases filed against them during different movements such as the quota-reform and safe road movements, making public the wealth information of the prime minister, ministers, MPs and higher government officials, increasing risk allowances for police, announcing freedom fighters as the revered citizens of the state and raising allowances for them, making a correct list of exact number of martyrs of the Liberation War, introducing allowances for destitute, widows and insolvent elderly people and forming a ministry for minority communities.
Keep the faith
Now it is obviously wrong to expect the parties to stick to their manifestos to the letter. That doesn’t happen anywhere. Even in the UK, where manifestos by custom enjoy great prominence, or in the US (where they are called platforms), expectations are curbed by the vagaries of reality. An encouraging aspect of the whole exercise that took place in Bangladesh around manifestos, is that the two main factions put forward programs with significant points of departure: that means voters are presented with a genuine choice in front of them as they contemplate their vote. From the manifestos at least, one may define the battle set to culminate on December 30 as ‘Continued Development v Taking back Democracy’.
That is if they bother to read them in the first place. Manifestos are hardly likely to sway the undecided, since, contrary to liberal theory, the undecided tend not to be particularly interested in politics. Besides, as we can see, a manifesto contains a whole host of commitments. A voter who agreed with all of them would be a rare creature indeed. Most will not be aware of more than a small number. An election decides who governs, not what policies the government should follow. Above all, the best use of a manifesto may be to foreshadow not only policies but a party’s direction of travel. It’s up to us who we decide to hitch a ride with.