Global activities on fair elections in Bangladesh step up

Ed Keyes and Richard McCormick (left to right)

Two members of the US Congress are in Dhaka at the moment. Just last week the US state office’s coordinator on global anti-corruption paid a visit. And the director of the US Indo-Pacific Command will be coming this month too. And over two weeks back, a delegation of the European Union visited Dhaka too.

Over this past year or so, one of the focal points of interest of visiting delegations from various western countries, has been Bangladesh’s forthcoming national election. They have been urging for free, fair and peaceful elections. Neighbouring India, which had been silent so far, is now also making its stand clear about Bangladesh’s election. It calls for a peaceful election in the scheduled time.

Overall, there has been an increase in global initiatives, interest and activities over Bangladesh’s 12th national parliamentary election. China and Russia had been critical of the activities of the US and other western countries concerning Bangladesh’s polls.

In the meantime, Bangladesh’s two major political parties remain at loggerheads over the issue of the election time government. And experts observe a sense of unease within the government over the stance and activities of the western countries aimed at ensuring a fair election. They feel that the stand of China and India is a matter of relief for the government.

Global activities for fair elections in Bangladesh came to the limelight in May, when the US announced its new visa policy. At the same time, however, various programmes to take forward multilateral cooperation between the two countries continue. As part of all this, a delegation of the US Congress is in Bangladesh at the moment. Ed Case, Democrat congressman elected from Hawaii and Richard McCormick, Republican congressmen elected from Georgia, arrived in Dhaka yesterday, Saturday. Foreign ministry sources in Dhaka say that the two congressmen have come to see the state of the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar.

However, during their stay in Dhaka they will exchange views with foreign minister AK Abdul Momen, a number of former and present members of parliament, and leaders of various political parties. Diplomats think that during these exchanges of views, the two US politicians will try to learn and understand about the forthcoming election in Bangladesh.

Earlier, last week the US state department’s coordinator on global anti-corruption, Richard Nephew, came to Dhaka to discuss anti-corruption issues. Towards the end of the month, US Indo-Pacific Command’s director for strategic planning and policy, Brig. Gen. Thomas James, will be coming to join a defence dialogue. Then in the first half of next month, US trade department’s assistant trade representative for South and Central Asia, Brendon Lynch, will arrive to join the Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum Agreement (TICFA) meeting in Dhaka. There are also efforts to hold a security dialogue between the two countries in Dhaka this October.

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Dhaka and Washington diplomatic sources say that for over a decade, multilateral cooperation had developed between Bangladesh and the US. Broadly speaking, the areas of cooperation include human rights and good governance, trade and investment, development cooperation, non-traditional security cooperation, and defence cooperation. There remain certain differences between the two sides on human rights and good governance. This is reflected in the sanctions on RAB and seven senior former and serving officials of the force and the US visa policy imposed against those hampering a fair election.

Political observers believe, the western countries including the US have become vocal quite well in advance compared to before, concerning the national election. The western countries have been stressing peaceful political activities to ensure a free and fair election.

The United Kingdom and the EU have voiced their expectations for a free and fair election in Bangladesh. Last month a pre-election observation team of the EU visited Bangladesh and spoke to various stakeholders. Based on their recommendations, next month the EU vice president Josep Borrell will take a final decision on whether to send a full-fledged election observation team to Bangladesh.

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India wants stability in Bangladesh

While the western countries are vocal about wanting free and fair elections in Bangladesh, so long neighbouring India had been silent. Meanwhile, though Russia and China generally do not speak up about elections in other countries, they changed their position this time. The two countries recently criticised the US role regarding Bangladesh’s elections.

At such a juncture, the issue of Bangladesh’s election came up on Friday during the regular press briefing of the Indian foreign ministry. When asked about the issue of elections in Bangladesh being held under a caretaker government, the Indian foreign ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi refrained from comment. However, he did say that the Bangladesh constitution has a position on this.

In the briefing of the week before that, Arindam Bagchi had answered an election-related question, saying that India wanted the people of Bangladesh to determine the election and democratic process there. India expects that the election will be held in a peaceful manner according to plan.

Meanwhile a five-member delegation of Awami League visited Delhi last week at the invitation of India’s ruling party BJP. Upon their return, the head of the delegation, agriculture minister Abdur Razzaque, told a press briefing on Thursday during the trip they learnt that India wanted political stability in Bangladesh.

When it comes to Bangladesh’s election, former diplomat Md Humayun Kabir feels that India is in agreement with the western democratic values. He feels that as a close neighbor, everyone understands India’s importance and so there is no need for India to take sides.

State minister for foreign affairs Md Shahriar Alam conveyed the government’s displeasure at the joint statement. He referred to the Vienna Convention, calling upon the diplomats to refrain from such ‘undiplomatic’ behaviour in the future

Unease over diplomats’ activities

Statements from the US and European Union diplomats regarding free and fair elections in Bangladesh, have irked the government for some time now. The latest manifestation of these views held by the western diplomats was the joint statement of the ambassadors of 13 foreign diplomatic missions including the EU, concerning the assault on Hero Alom, the independent candidate in the Dhaka-17 by-election. After this statement, in an unprecedented move the 13 diplomats were summoned all together on 26 July. State minister for foreign affairs Md Shahriar Alam conveyed the government’s displeasure at the joint statement. He referred to the Vienna Convention, calling upon the diplomats to refrain from such ‘undiplomatic’ behaviour in the future. During the discussion that day, the diplomats explained the cause and context of their statement. They also said that as friends of Bangladesh, they would remain firm in their stand for a free, fair and peaceful election.

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Former ambassador of Bangladesh to Washington, Md Humayun Kabir, who is also president of Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI), told Prothom Alo the world regards Bangladesh as a promising country due to its economic advancement and geopolitical context. If Bangladesh wants to maintain its position as a promising country, it must uphold credible elections, human rights and elements of a greater democratic process.