Who are actually determining the future of the election?

Flags of Bangladesh, India, USA, China and Russia

We have probably accepted the unfortunate fact that the decision pertaining to how our election will be held, is to come from outside the country. That is why we have to look towards the BRICS summit. It has become important for us to discuss and determine how far Xi Jingping is extending his support for Bangladesh there. Or we have to try to comprehend the significance of Russian foreign minister Lavrov’s visit. We have to focus our attention on the G-20 summit. We have to embroil in arguments over how meaningful was the selfie taken by Joe Biden with the prime minister there. We are having to lose sleep over trying to find out what was discussed at the official and the exclusive meetings between Modi and Sheikh Hasina. Everyone is having to keep tabs on why the French president Macron visited Bangladesh, what he had said, and how much had he praised the Bangladesh government.

We are having to keep our eyes trained on the Indian newspapers. They are regularly publishing analyses on Bangladesh, the Bangladesh election and the state of democracy. The Indian press has never been so focused on Bangladesh before. We are having to read everything – what the New York Times is writing, what the Foreign Policy is saying, and also what the state controlled press in Russian and China are saying. There is inevitably one question or the other raised every week at the press briefing of the US state department.

Prothom Alo recently interviewed Michael Kugelman, director of the Washington-based Wilson Centre’s Asia Institute. Over there he said, Bangladesh’s foreign policy is at the centre of four countries’ rivalries. These countries are India, China, the US and Russia. While these countries have competition, rivalry and conflict with each other, all four of them have close relations with Bangladesh. He termed this as a critical situation.

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And now, into the centre of these four countries trying to exert their influence on Bangladesh, the elections of Bangladesh have popped up. The last two election held in Bangladesh were not considered credible at any level, neither at home nor abroad.

As part of its strategy to exert its influence over Bangladesh, the US is insisting on a free and fair election and is putting on pressure to that end. And the US has probably taken into account what a free and fair election actually entails, and has proceeded accordingly. It looks like Awami League had caught on to that and so they see the US’ demand for free and fair elections as a conspiracy against the government.

The US has also become active concerning the incidents of human rights violations taking place over the long stretch of Awami League’s rule. The western world, including the European Union, is with them on this. Europe is Bangladesh’s largest market. Conditions may be in the offing for Bangladesh to ensure human rights issues if it is to avail GSP facilities of the European Union market. Such strategies of the US and countries of the West are likely to continue.

Meanwhile, Russia and China have no qualms over democracy or human rights. They have quite openly made known their support for the Awami League government which has been in power for three consecutive terms. They are mobilising support for the model of their long-term and continued authoritarian rule as a counter to the election-dependent western democratic trend. They feel that the US stand regarding Bangladesh’s election amounts to interference in internal affairs. As for the last two questionable elections of Bangladesh, India had been the only one at an international level that stood in favour of Awami League. No one believes that India will change its stance this time round.

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So if the future of Bangladesh’s elections depends on the competition and rivalry of these four countries, then how do things stand? The relations and equations of these four countries is quite complex. Till now it is observed that India, China and Russia share the same stand when it comes to supporting Awami League. If the US keeps up its pressure regarding fair elections and democracy, then it will have to step up its dependence on the other three. Among China, India and Russia, China has the most power and capabilities. And their ambitions in global politics have shot up high too. Compared to India economically and militarily, China is far ahead. So it is quite natural for China’s influence on Bangladesh’s economy and politics to overtake that of India. From an Indo-Pacific angle, that is certain a matter of concern for the US, but much more a matter of concern so for India.

In his interview, Kugelman said that India has a very close relationship with Bangladesh and so has scope to play a role in this situation. India may make an effort to ensure that Bangladesh does not lean towards China. In the part of his interview that clarifies the stand of the US and India on the question of Bangladesh, he says, “the US really wants to push this democracy agenda. I think that the US feels it can really succeed. With the sanctions on the RAB, the visa policy, it could create conditions for a free and fair election. And it is willing to take the risk that it could fail. It doesn’t want to fail. I think that it concludes it can afford to rock the boat. It has that diplomatic space to so that.” He says that the US also realises that India might not stand by them when pushing the government into this predicament.

Neither India nor the US wants China’s influence on Bangladesh’s politics and economy to increase. Now if India does not play to the US tune concerning Bangladesh, then it will have to adopt a different strategy and path to tackle China’s influence in Bangladesh. The vital question at this juncture is, what is that path of India?

In an interview with Samakal on Saturday, BNP’s secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said. “China, Russia or France will hardly have any influence on this country’s politics. And so they are really not any tangible factor.” So while not saying so overtly, it is clear that Mirza Fakhrul is admitting that the US and India have the power to exert their influence on Bangladesh’s politics.”

The US has been engaged in a flurry of activities over Bangladesh’s election and so their stand is clear to BNP. BNP’s relations with India are sensitive for various reasons. That is why Mirza Fakhrul gave a diplomatic reply to the question about India’s stand on Bangladesh’s relations. He said, “Our relations with India are neither bad nor distant. We have always had connection with India and that still remains in place and will well remain so in the future too. I do not believe that India will take a stand against the people of Bangladesh.”

So who are actually determining the future of the election? If China, Russia and France have no role to play, that leaves the US and India. So do their wishes amount to everything? Or will it be the Bangladesh people’s aspirations for the restoration of democracy and voting rights that will determine the future of the forthcoming election?

* AKM Zakaria is deputy editor of Prothom Alo and can be reached at [email protected]

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir


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