Compared to what?
Folks at the International Crisis Group are disappointed with Hasina Wajed. This is from the very first para of their recent report on Bangladesh.
In December 2008, following two years of a military-backed caretaker government, the Awami League (AL) secured a landslide victory in what were widely acknowledged to be the fairest elections in the country’s history. The hope, both at home and abroad, was that Sheikh Hasina would use her mandate to revitalise democratic institutions and pursue national reconciliation, ending the pernicious cycle of zero-sum politics between her AL and its rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Three and a half years on, hope has been replaced by deep disillusionment, as two familiar threats to Bangladesh’s democracy have returned: the prospect of election-related violence and the risks stemming from an unstable and hostile military.
I’ll write separately on the report. For now, let me focus on this feeling of disappointment, which is shared widely across the kind of people — the Daily Star reading, talk show/seminar/rountable attending crowd (you know who they/you/we are) — ICG would have interviewed. Let me pose the question to these folks: the disappointment is compared to what? What is the benchmark against which the government is being judged?
Let me explore this with what I know the most about — the economy. By some fairly standard criteria of what matter most for economic growth and development, the current government is actually performing remarkably well. Sure there have been risks. And the Bangladeshi economy has definitely dodged some bullets. But the fact is, as of June 2012, things have been okay. Things surely could have been a lot worse.
Of course, things could also have been better. With a better economic team, had the prime minister wanted, she could have pushed through much needed regulatory reforms or better targeted infrastructure projects. She hasn’t done so, and the result is average growth rate of 6% instead of 8%.
Now, I certainly am disappointed that the reform opportunity has been wasted. But then again, times of steady growth are probably not when hard reforms take place. I’d have been lot more disappointed had a crisis been wasted. And more importantly, when it comes to matters economic, the benchmark for my disappointment is a hypothetical government that could have done better. Measured against its predecessors, this government has actually done quite okay.
What about other issues? Certainly electricity or traffic has been a problem, at least for the urbanites. But has the government done worse than its predecessors? Or has it failed to live up to some hypothetical government?
What about law and order? The high profile crimes like unsolved double murders can colour one’s perceptions. Of course, the government hasn’t even bothered with police reform. But again, that’s measuring the government against a hypothetical. Is there any concrete evidence that murder rate per thousand people have increased under this government?
It’s important to stress the relevant benchmark.
Now, before anyone mistakes me for this guy (who is far better looking than me), let me say clearly that I agree with the ICG’s complaints about the government:
Instead of changing the old pattern of politics, the AL government has systematically used parliament, the executive and the courts to reinforce it, including by filing corruption cases against Khaleda Zia, the BNP chairperson, and employing security agencies to curb opposition activities. Most worrying, however, is the AL-dominated parliament’s adoption of the fifteenth amendment to the constitution, which scraps a provision mandating the formation of a neutral caretaker administration to oversee general elections.
The point, however, is if I am disappointed, then what’s my benchmark?
Never mind complicated theories about winner-takes-all or patron-client politics. In Bangladesh, losing an election doesn’t mean just losing perks of the office. It also means being kicked out of your home, which is then demolished. It means having your family members tortured and crippled. And it means grenades lobbed at you.
In Bangladesh, losing an election is literally a matter of life and death. So Awami League is doing everything it can to hang on to power.
Disappointed? Perhaps if judged against some hypothetical visionary reformist. But judge against its predecessors (including past AL governments), is the current one really doing something out-of-ordinary?
Mind you, I could (and did) say very similar things about BNP in 2006. Economic boom? Check. A turn around in the law and order situation? Check. Even the jihadis were brought under control by 2006. By most objective criteria, the average Bangladeshi household never had it so good.
And of course, the BNP government dodged hard decisions about economic reforms, and was gearing up to rig the election.
Perhaps compared against a realistic benchmark, neither AL nor BNP are that bad. Perhaps that’s why the ordinary voters keep voting these parties repeatedly — they have realistic expectations.