Bangladesh promises free, fair polls after US warns of visa curbs

Dhaka assures of free elections, due by January 2024, after the US says it would restrict visas to Bangladeshis who undermine the vote.

Bangladesh election
A voter gives her thumb imprint before proceeding to vote at a polling centre in Munshiganj district of Bangladesh [File: Al-emrun Garjon/AP]

Bangladesh will take steps to tackle and prevent unlawful practices or interference in its elections, authorities said, a day after the United States threatened curbs on citizens of the South Asian nation who undermine them.

Concern flared after accusations of vote rigging and targeting of the political opposition marred national elections in 2014 and 2018, charges denied by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, whose Awami League party won both.

The 2014 polls were boycotted by the rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday said the US is adopting a new policy to restrict visas for Bangladeshis who undermine the democratic election process at home.

Blinken said the US was supporting “free, fair and peaceful national elections” and would target either pro-government or opposition supporters in the deeply polarised nation.

“I am announcing this policy to lend our support to all those seeking to advance democracy in Bangladesh,” said Blinken, who already has authority under the US law to restrict visas over election meddling.

He said the move could affect current or former officials and politicians and members of law enforcement, the judiciary and security services “believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh”.

“The holding of free and fair elections is the responsibility of everyone – voters, political parties, the government, the security forces, civil society and the media,” he said in a statement.

In response, the Bangladesh foreign ministry issued a statement on Thursday, assuring of free and fair elections, due in January next year.

“The government apparatus will take necessary measures to prevent and address any unlawful practices or interference … to compromise the smooth and participatory conduct of the elections,” it said.

“The electoral process will remain under strict vigilance, including by international observers as accredited by the Election Commission.”

The commission retains the ability to perform its functions in full independence, credibility and efficiency, the ministry added.

PM Hasina assures fair elections

Speaking at the Qatar Economic Forum in capital Doha on Wednesday, Hasina also promised a fair election.

“I am here to ensure our people’s voting rights because people should decide who will run the country. It is people’s power. I want to ensure people’s power,” she said.

“I am not here to grab power, rather I want to empower our people. They should have that right to choose their government. So under our government, definitely elections will be free and fair.”

Responding to Blinken’s statements, Hasina said: “As for the US, you can see that Mr Trump didn’t accept the results. What do they have to say now? We have told everybody, if they want to send observers they can do it.”

Hasina, who has kept tight control of the South Asian nation since coming to power in 2009, has been accused of human rights violations, obliteration of press freedom, suppression of dissent and the jailing of critics, including many BNP supporters.

The BNP has been calling for Hasina to step down and for the next election to be held under a neutral caretaker government, a demand her government has rejected.

“This new visa policy proves once again that the international community is certain that a free and fair election is not possible under this government,” said a senior BNP leader, Zahir Uddin Swapon.

Hasina is generally seen as a Western ally, with her opposition to Muslim hardline groups and business-friendly policies. She has especially close ties with neighbouring India. China has also been seeking influence in the world’s eighth most populous country, investing billions of dollars in infrastructure projects.

But the US under President Joe Biden has also voiced concerns on the human rights situation as well as a law on digital security that has been seen as a way to curb online dissent. Washington did not invite Bangladesh to two summits on democracies that it hosted.

Since December 2021, the US has maintained sanctions on an elite police unit targeting crime and terrorism, which has been accused of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

Bangladeshi political analyst Badiul Alam Majumdar welcomed the new US curbs connected to the elections.

“I see this restriction as a preventive measure,” he added. “This could avert efforts by individuals to rig elections in their favour.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies