Dhaka, Bangladesh – The 18-party opposition in Bangladesh plans to boycott the January 5 national elections due to concerns over the ruling party’s administration of the polls.
While the EU, US and Commonwealth nations have repeatedly asked the ruling and opposition alliance to settle the political impasse, there has been no solution to date. Political violence in the country, following the execution of an opposition leader for past war crimes, has left more than 170 people dead.
Recently, outside actors announced that they will not send observers to the elections, as a critique of the voting process and the organisation of the election. A week ahead of the vote, more than 154 seats out of a total of 300 in the parliament had already been won unopposed by the ruling alliance party.
International relations experts and independent observers in Bangladesh fear that these are the first of many steps that may gradually turn into severe punitive measures against the country, if polls are not deemed credible and if political violence continues.
‘No election observers’
In a press statement on December 22, a spokesperson for the US State Department expressed disappointment “that the major political parties [of Bangladesh] have not yet reached consensus on a way to achieve [free and fair] elections, since more than half of the parliamentary seats are uncontested for the January 5 polls. In this context, the United States will not deploy observers for these elections”.
On the same date, the Commonwealth nations’ Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma, in a letter to the Election Commission in Bangladesh, said his group would not be sending observers to polls as “most political parties are not joining“.
Two days earlier, the spokesperson of Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union (EU) for Foreign Affairs, conveyed a similar message in a press statement. The EU “regrets” that Bangladesh’s main political parties have been unable to create an atmosphere for “transparent, inclusive and credible elections, despite many efforts, including most recently under UN auspices”.
With 82 countries questioning the credibility of the polls, experts fear punitive measures on opposition supporters could follow the vote.
“Right now, we have a repressive government,” said M Shahiduzzaman, a security analyst and a professor of international relations at the University of Dhaka. “After the January 5 elections, we will have an undemocratic government,” he said, adding that this will lead to more violence.
Such a situation may, he dreaded, “lead to sanctions from the countries expressing concerns with our political situation now”. Special benefits in trade that Bangladesh is receiving from some export destinations could also be under threat, he said.
Under the Generalised System of Preference (GSP) scheme, Bangladeshi export items enjoy duty-free access to EU markets. Also, as a Least Developed Country (LDC) member, Bangladesh enjoys special tariff benefits – an 18 percent discount on import taxes in Canada, a Commonwealth nation.
Western and EU markets are major contributors to Bangladesh’s annual export revenue, which stood at $21.5bn for the fiscal year. Eighty percent of this export revenue is generated by textile industry, which employs more than 4 million workers.
“Assuming the elections take place, many countries will re-evaluate their relationship with Bangladesh. What changes these countries will make is unclear right now, but it will certainly not be business as usual,” according to David Bergman, a journalist based in Dhaka.
The absence of observers from the EU, US and the Commonwealth should be regarded as “a warning shot”, said Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah, the chairman of Janipop, national election observation council of Bangladesh.
“There could be steps like a decline in cultural exchanges with these countries, a decline in foreign aid and trade sanctions,” he said.
The opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) has used international observer boycotts to buttress its own case claiming that the vote won’t be free and fair.
On December 23, the Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmed played down the concern of observers not making it to the country’s elections.
“There is no cause for alarm about these issues,” Ahmed told local reporters.
He assured the media, “Others will be on the field as they [foreign observers] have decided to not come. We have local observers and you all [media]. You will show the people of the country how the election has been held.”
During a news conference on December 24, opposition alliance leader and chairperson of BNP, Khaleda Zia, called for a “March for Democracy”, urging people to resist the “undemocratic” polls.
On December 26, more than 50,000 army personnel were deployed across the country to aid the Election Commission in holding the polls, after the CEC requested an army deployment from December 26 until January 9.