In preparation for Bangladesh’s next national election, which will be in January 2014, the government, headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has suggested the formation of an all-party poll-time government to oversee the election. Her administration has already invited the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to send names of its lawmakers for inclusion in the interim cabinet. However, BNP along with three other parties (Jamaat-e-Islami, the Bangladesh Jatiya Party, and the Liberal Democratic Party), have rejected the idea of such a poll-time government, and have reiterated that they would neither join the all-party administration nor take part in an election under such a government.
BNP and its allied parties are staunchly pursuing their demand for a neutral, non-party Caretaker Government (CG) that will oversee the election process through an independent Election Commission. The neutral CG system prevailing in Bangladesh was dismantled by the present government through an Act of Parliament and has created widespread apprehension among opposition political parties regarding the potential for a free and fair 2014 election.
Related to this demand, BNP has called a series of hartals (work and transport stoppages usually violently enforced) including an on-going, 60-hour hartal that has already resulted in a reported two deaths, a few hundred injured, and widespread destruction of vehicles and property, and income losses for shops, factories, and businesses. If the Awami League tries to hold the election without BNP’s participation, further violence can be expected, jeopardizing the chances for a peaceful and acceptable election.
Other major issues relating to the state of the economy – how well the government has performed during its five-year tenure and how the Opposition BNP proposes to improve on that performance – have been relegated to the background by both the major parties so far. To understand where people stand on these issues and the election, in September 2013, The Asia Foundation conducted a nationwide rapid assessment citizen perceptions survey across 14 districts of the country (two in each of the seven divisions). Partnering with the best known English-language newspaper in Bangladesh, The Daily Star, the Foundation’s survey gathered perceptions from 1,400 respondents from a cross-section of ordinary citizens, civil society representatives, local businesspersons, and (non-political) elites through individual interviews in each district headquarter and a proximate rural upazila (sub-district) in the same district.
A large majority of respondents (77%) said that the next election should be held under a neutral caretaker government as in previous elections. Sixty-two percent of respondents are optimistic and said it is likely or very likely that the major parties would reach some understanding and that a peaceful election would happen.
The survey shows that at least 10 percent of people consider poverty, the ongoing national political conflict, hartals and political violence, high and rising food prices, unemployment, and corruption among the five major problems facing Bangladesh today. National political conflict, hartals, and political violence are considered the leading problems by about one-third of all respondents, and by approximately 40 percent of urban respondents and male respondents.
Perceptions appear to be equally divided on which direction the country is going: 47 percent of all respondents reported the country is going in the right direction, while 44 percent reported that it is going in the wrong direction.
According to more than 30 percent of respondents, the current government appears to have been successful or highly successful in improving education and health facilities and services, increasing availability of clean drinking water, improving the quality of services provided by local government offices, ensuring adequate fertilizer availability, and building or improving infrastructure.
Respondents also lauded the government’s performance in improving the availability of power; over 60 percent of respondents in rural and urban areas said that electric supply has increased compared to the period under the previously elected government. In addition, over 50 percent of respondents in both rural and urban areas said that government is taking adequate steps at the national level to meet power supply needs. The survey showed that the government also performed well in supporting the agricultural sector, with 44 percent of respondents saying that agricultural activities have grown during the tenure of this government.
Regarding law and order, 62 percent of respondents maintained that the extent of criminal activity is now lower (47%) or is about the same (15%) compared to the situation under the previously elected government. In urban areas, however, 51 percent of respondents said criminal activity has increased.
The government’s performance is, however, rated as weak in a number of other areas. More than 50 percent of respondents said the government was not “at all” successful in reducing unemployment, keeping food prices under control, reducing corruption in government and in the judicial system, stabilizing fuel prices, and controlling terrorism. High and rising food prices have been articulated by respondents as among the top three problems facing the country or their localities. Unemployment continues to be a major issue and the youth population in particular continues to be disappointed with the prevalence of severe unemployment.
Approximately 50 percent of respondents believe that corruption at the national level has increased compared to the situation under the previously elected government. Moreover, about 46 percent of respondents said that, in light of their own experience, corruption has increased in their localities compared to the situation under the previously elected government, 32 percent said that it has declined, while 22 percent said it has remained about the same.
On the issue of human rights, 43 percent of respondents said that incidents of disappearances or intimidation of opposition members, political activists, labor rights activists, or journalists have increased, while 34 percent believe such incidents have decreased. Also, 54 percent of respondents said that violence against women including domestic violence, sexual harassment, and illegal punishments through religious fatwas is continuing due to weak implementation of existing laws and judicial guidelines.
Over half of respondents (55%) said they have reasonable or high confidence in their government in terms of how its activities have improved their lives, while 45 percent said they have low confidence. Rural respondents and female respondents have higher confidence in the government than urban, male, or youth respondents.
Based on all of these factors, respondents were asked to give their opinion on which party they expect to win in the 2014 election. A majority of respondents (55%) said that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) will win the next election. Less than 30 percent said that the ruling Awami League will win, and 12 percent did not respond. We await with great interest and anticipation to see how these perceptions of Bangladesh’s most pressing issues factor in the ultimate outcome of the election, now less than three months away.
Farouk Chowdhury is The Asia Foundation’s senior economist in Bangladesh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
Source: Asia Foundation