When Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was elected in 2009, she promised to reduce poverty, stimulate growth and propel her then-impoverished nation into the digital age. Over the last decade, she has done exactly that.
Per capita income has nearly tripled. Instances of extreme poverty have been halved. Women are far better educated, safer and more prosperous than their mothers. No wonder the prime minister and her Awami League party were overwhelmingly re-elected in December for a third consecutive term.
Some in the international media found it hard to believe that Bangladeshi voters could back one party so thoroughly. A closer look at the polls and how much life has improved in Bangladesh over the last 10 years removes that doubt.
Public opinion polls long predicted a landslide for Awami League candidates. U.S.-based Democracy International found 53 percent support for the Awami League in September and October. Research and Development Corporation put the party’s support at 60.4 percent in December. The party’s own polling showed a 66 percent margin. The Awami League’s 72 percent total and 58 percent of registered voters on election day was no surprise.
Why such massive popularity? Under Sheikh Hasina, Bangladeshis have progressed at a blistering pace. The economy has averaged more than 6 percent annual growth for nearly a decade, reaching 7.86 percent last year. Since 2009, 15.8 million people were lifted out of poverty. The poverty rate fell to 21.8 percent from 31.5 percent during the period. Over the same span, per capita income rose nearly threefold to $1,750.
The booming economy brought employment to millions, especially women, many of whom are receiving educations and earning salaries for the first time. Overall enrollment of girls in primary school rose from 57 percent in 2008 to 95.4 percent in 2017. The female-to-male high school enrollment ratio is 53 percent to 47 percent, a dramatic turnaround from the 35 percent to 65 percent ratio prior to 2009.
These developments have turned wives, once bypassed citizens, into breadwinners, improving family fortunes and social standing. The World Economic Forum last year ranked Bangladesh first in gender equality among South Asian nations for the second year in a row and fifth in the world in terms of political empowerment of women.
Sadly, Bangladesh has a history of political violence. Last year, the government of Bangladesh did everything in its power to keep the peace.
Authorities arrested people with outstanding warrants for serious crimes. These arrests were limited in scope and focused only on people charged with heinous offenses. There were no mass arrests. Nor were the arrests made for political reasons. Some arrests were made to stop voter fraud, but by opposition party allies, not Awami Leaguers.
The independent election commission also deployed thousands of soldiers in the weeks leading up to the election. The opposition sought to portray these deployments as an attempt to intimidate voters. In fact, members of the opposition requested them to save lives.
The effort largely worked. During the run-up to the election, opposition-party attacks on officials of the Awami League resulted in about 300 injuries and five deaths. On election day, attacks resulted in the deaths of nine additional Awami League activists and eight others. But this was much safer than the previous two national elections.
During the 2008 election, as many as 108 people died. The 2014 elections were even more violent. Instead of participating in 2014, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) instigated nationwide strikes and other disruptions. Its members firebombed polling booths, buses and political offices. BNP-backed attacks killed 231 people and injured 1,180 others during the 2014 campaign.
After winning the 2001 general election, the BNP and its Jamaat-E-Islami allies attacked opposition parties and minority communities. Nearly 25,000 people were killed.
In 2018, the Awami League did the opposite. It made sure last year’s election was safe for Bangladesh’s 166 million people. That was a positive change but was only one of many. Bangladesh has become a vibrant hub of South Asia. Bangladeshis know who is responsible for this improvement: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League. That’s why they returned her to office by a landslide.
Mohammad Ziauddin is Bangladesh’s ambassador to the United States.