For those of us who grew up in the development phase of the Bengali nationalist movement and witnessed the liberation war and genocide of 1971, the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence is a time of celebration and self-assessment. We are celebrating the successes and trying to figure out the reasons behind them. We try to understand the mistakes by judging the aspects of our failures. As we celebrate, we need to learn from our achievements and shortcomings so that we can better prepare for the future.
We have had to face huge challenges during independence. The challenges of building a new state, uniting a new nation, rebuilding infrastructure and reviving the economy have been met. But these challenges did not dampen our spirits. All in all, we made an impossible dream come true; Bangladesh gained the status of an independent sovereign state through the first nationalist movement in the post-colonial world. We were confident that we would be able to build ‘Golden Bengal’ through our own efforts. We were young, our leadership in all sectors was also young.
Continuity in socio-economic development
At that time our biggest concern was about socio-economic development. How to provide food and education to our people with limited resources, how to meet health and other basic needs, how to reduce poverty and become economically prosperous was a matter of great concern.
Surprisingly, in the last 50 years, we have made steady progress on every important indicator of socio-economic development. Life expectancy in 1971 was 46 years, now it has increased to 72 years. The per capita income was মার্কিন 120, now it has risen to over মার্কিন 2,000. We are self-sufficient in food production and no longer depend on foreign aid. Our achievements in poverty alleviation, education and health development, and the elimination of gender inequality are now being analyzed and predicted in the international media.
There is a general consensus that we have taken many steps forward and that it has been fruitful for the ruling party to continue to change. From the very beginning, we have focused on poverty alleviation, women’s empowerment, bringing social and financial services to the doorsteps of the people and giving people the opportunity to take the same initiative in improving their condition. Co-operation and co-ordination between government and non-government actors and finding solutions to the problems here on our own has played a key role in our progress.
Rise and fall in politics
Although there was continuity in socio-economic development, our political path was not smooth. After independence we started our journey as a multi-party parliamentary democracy. Within a year, a constitution was drafted in Bangladesh, in which four principles of the state were adopted — nationalism, democracy, secularism and socialism. But in the last 50 years, we have not been able to move forward based on our founding principles. There have been deviations and falls along the way, back in orbit.
Democracy was the first principle that was attacked. Within four years of independence, the country moved towards one-party authoritarian rule and in 1975 Bangladesh came under military rule, which lasted for 15 years.
After the military took power, the other two principles of the constitution, secularism and socialism, were neglected. The first military ruler removed secularism from the basic principles of the state through a military ordinance. He lifted restrictions on religion-based parties to allow the use of religion for political purposes.
He changed the definition of socialism to ‘socialism in the sense of economic and social justice’, through which the people lost ownership of financial institutions and industries. Besides, he adopted various market-friendly policies. These policies continued to be followed by later governments and our mainstream political parties also stopped talking about socialism. The second military ruler made Islam the state religion and further expanded opportunities for the private sector.
In the face of the people’s movement, the military rule finally came to an end in 1990. We thought we got a second chance to resume the democratic journey. Over the next 18 years, power shifted between the two main political parties. The Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) came to power through four elections held under a non-partisan caretaker government. We created a non-partisan caretaker government to ensure fair elections with the participation of all political parties. But regular elections and power shifts did not lead to the development of democracy. Opponents were repressed and attempts were made to control the media and civil society. As the opposition boycotted the session, the parliament became ineffective and street protests, strikes and blockades resumed, hurting the country’s economy and the daily activities of the people.
In 2008, our fragile electoral democracy collapsed again. The army intervened when the two main parties failed to reach an agreement on an election-time government. An army-backed civilian government ruled the country for two years. This government held elections in 2008, which the Awami League-led grand alliance won. The winning alliance had an electoral commitment to advance the practice of democracy in the country. We were optimistic again, we got a third chance to return to the democratic journey.
But during the 2011 election, there was a non-partisan caretaker government
Tha was handed over. Since then, both the Awami League and the BNP have not been able to agree on a formula acceptable to them for participating in the elections. The BNP-led alliance boycotted the 2014 elections. In that election, the candidates of the ruling Awami League-led alliance were elected unopposed in most of the seats. Although the BNP and other opposition parties competed in the 2016 elections, there are many allegations of irregularities in the elections. Our elections have lost acceptance since 2014.
Undemocratic practices in electoral democracy
Since the return to electoral democracy in 1990, Bangladesh’s position in every global survey on democracy has been steadily deteriorating. Especially in the ‘rule of law’ index, our position is bad. The independence of institutions known as ‘Horizontal Accountability Institutions’ i.e. the National Parliament, the Judiciary, the Anti-Corruption Commission, the Election Commission, the Human Rights Commission are important to ensure the balance of power and the rule of law. The poor position in the Rule of Law Index not only exposes the weaknesses of our democratic institutions, but also the security of our citizens. Citizens cannot trust the state to protect their basic human rights.
Compared to the rule of law, the Voice Index, which measures the strength of vertical accountability institutions, has seen steady progress since 1991 in holding government accountable to the people. Vertical accountability is measured in the light of freedom of the press and civil society, free and fair elections, and so on. But in recent years, the Voice Index has also been on a downward trend. Flawed elections, crackdowns on political opponents and various measures to control the media have raised concerns about Bangladesh’s democratic future.
Expectations for the future
Bangladesh has made significant progress in social and economic development. The country is much stronger now than it was 50 years ago. Our economy is now much stronger than before. Through this we should give priority to becoming more confident and building strong democratic institutions. It will pave the way for our long-term development and the goal of becoming a developed country in the next 20 years.
There are many challenges and we need to take steps to strengthen democratic institutions. I would prioritize working in three cases. First, we must give the media and civic organizations (civil society organizations) full freedom to operate independently, so that they can play their role as institutions to ensure accountability. The Digital Security Act, which brought the sword to freedom of speech, needs to be amended in consultation with relevant stakeholders.
Second, we need to restore the acceptability of the electoral system. We have shown in the past that we are capable of holding free, fair, peaceful and participatory elections. Now we need political will to hold such an acceptable election again. To achieve this goal, all political parties must come to an agreement that they will abandon the ‘Winner Takes All’ culture. This culture has made our politics conflicted, created a trend of exclusion. The losers became marginalized. As a result, political commentary became unbearable and the people’s opportunity to speak was curtailed.
Third, we must work to restore public confidence in the rule of law. Where law enforcement will apply the law equally to all, regardless of party affiliation. It is a difficult task, but we have to move from a power-centric system to a governance system.