Good governance, the rule of law and democracy to ensure human rights and equal opportunity were fundamental pillars of Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971. But, over the past five decades, exactly how much has the country achieved on those fronts?

Over the past 50 years, Bangladesh has transformed from being a “bottomless basket” to one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Bangladesh reached a lower-middle-income status in 2015 from being one of the poorest nations with per capita gross domestic product being the 10th lowest in the world in 1971.

Approximately 90% of the population was in extreme poverty based on the international poverty line of $1.90 a day. Though the income disparity between the top 5% and the bottom 40% has increased gradually, poverty declined from 43.5% to 14.3% between 1991 and 2016, creating an opportunity to be on the UN’s list of Least Developed Countries in 2026.

Significant improvements

Bangladesh has shown significant improvement in several other sectors like education, health, and women empowerment. Currently, 98% of children nationwide finish primary school. According to a World Bank report, the national literacy rate was 29.23% in 1981 which rose to 74.68% in 2020.

Our country has made progress in combating child mortality and child malnutrition. The current life expectancy for an average Bangladeshi person is 73 in 2021, which is a significant rise from 47.95 in 1971, according to the United Nations’ World Population Projects.

Female education and women’s status in society have developed remarkably. At present, 32 lakh women, 80% of the 40 lakh workers, are working in readymade garments factories, which tremendously contributed to women empowerment, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

Bangladesh has also progressed in terms of exporting manpower to West Asia, Singapore and Malaysia, adding nearly $22 billion in 2020 as a remittance to its economy.

A flag rally during the celebration of Bangladesh's 50th anniversary of independence. Photo credit: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/ Reuters

However, despite consistent economic growth and development in many sectors, our country has faced daunting challenges while maintaining the rule of law and upholding human rights. Political turmoil has curbed democratic practices repeatedly and repudiated some gains achieved through independence.

The nation witnessed political upheavals such as the assassination of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, after less than three years of our sovereignty followed by several coups and military rules.

Though after two decades of instability, Bangladesh finally managed a parliamentary election in 1991, the practice, to date, has not been untroubled. The democratic movement experienced political turbulence in several instances. Following the uncertainty in the transition of power through a credible election, a military-backed non-partisan caretaker government took over in January 2007 with the promise to hold a fair election.

Political violence

Bangladesh Awami League came into power in December 2008 with an overwhelming majority. Henceforth, the party has been in power through two consecutive landslide victories that still remain questionable to many national and international communities, as major Opposition parties have boycotted following a fierce conflict over the demand of the caretaker government that claimed many lives.

Meanwhile, most Opposition voices and parties have gradually become weaker and inactive.

According to many human rights organisations, lack of political good-wills, non-cooperation of political parties, negligence and domination of ruling parties over Oppositions led to the violation of human rights, poor governance and election violence in the last decade.

Between 2013 and 2017, political violence across Bangladesh has claimed 1,028 people and injured 52,066 in 3,540 instances of political clashes, according to the data from Ain o Salish Kendra. It means the country has encountered an average of 56 instances of violence which have claimed 18 lives and wounded 866.68 people per month of those five years.

More recent data from the same organisation reveals that political upheavals claimed 74 lives and injured 5,254 people in 378 clashes between January to October of the last year. Finally, polls-related violence in the first four phases of Union Parishad killed at least 113 people and injured 7,201 in 672 incidents.

Meanwhile, the ruling party has begun to prepare for the next general elections in 2023, while the Opposition parties have claimed that a fair election would be impossible under the incumbent administration. They have demanded a neutral government to ensure a fair and credible election that may lead to another violent conflict in a matter of days.

Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid has begun to hold dialogues with political parties to form the next Election Commission. However, looking back over the past decade, political analysts believe the sessions might conclude as mere photo-ops if anything. The practice of good governance, the rule of law, and democracy are pivotal to the sustainable development of any society.

In the new year, after 50 years of our independence, our leaders should acknowledge the urgency of ensuring fruitful national dialogue to facilitate a violence-free, fair and credible elections – and consequently ensure the rule of law, human rights, the practice of democracy that are enshrined as our founding principles.

This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune.