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Bangladesh: Can EU pressure ensure fair elections?

July 24, 2023

Bangladesh is scheduled to hold general elections by January 2024, and observers say the EU has a key role to play in ensuring that the polls are free of electoral manipulation and misconduct.

A Bangladeshi voter casting her ballot at a polling booth
Opposition parties and government critics want the next general election to be held under a neutral caretaker administrationImage: Partho Sarothi Das

At least two opposition activists died and hundreds were injured in clashes across Bangladesh last week as tens of thousands took to the streets demanding Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's resignation. 

The fatalities reflect the deteriorating political climate in the South Asian country ahead of national elections expected in January 2024.

Hasina's Awami League party has kept tight control of Bangladesh since coming to power in 2009.

It has been accused of human rights violations, obliteration of press freedom, suppression of dissent and the jailing of critics, including many supporters of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The Awami League party denies these allegations.

The BNP and dozens of smaller allies have called for protests throughout the country to demand Hasina step down.

They want the next election to be held under a neutral caretaker administration, a demand Hasina's government has rejected.

The Bangladeshi government has also been sharply criticized after an incident last week where a candidate for a parliamentary by-election was attacked, allegedly by ruling party supporters, at a polling center in the capital Dhaka.

Western embassies, including Germany's, released a joint statement condemning the attack.

The incident occurred at a time when a six-member Election Exploratory Mission of the European Union was visiting the country to decide on the possibility of sending EU election observers to monitor the upcoming polls.

During their two-week visit, from July 8 to July 22, the EU team held several dozen meetings with various stakeholders, including political parties, media representatives and civil society members, to assess the political situation in the country.

What role can the EU play?

Ali Riaz, a political science professor at Illinois State University, said that the EU can play a vital role in ensuring free and fair elections in Bangladesh.

"The EU can highlight the benefits a democratic and inclusive Bangladesh will receive in terms of economic cooperation, social development, and access to EU markets," he pointed out.

"Although the EU's leverage is more economic, the question is how far the EU is willing to use its leverage," he told DW.

Jasmin Lorch, a South Asia analyst and guest lecturer at the Humboldt University in Berlin, said that the EU can send observers if the minimum conditions for a free and fair election are in place.

"If it is obvious that there is not going to be a level playing field, the EU and its member states can try to apply pressure. The biggest bargaining chip the EU could use would be to threaten to withdraw the EBA arrangement, partially or in full," she told DW, referring to the Everything But Arms (EBA) arrangement that grants Bangladesh duty-free, quota-free access to the EU for exports of all products, except arms and ammunition.

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Can EU also impose visa restrictions?

EU imports from Bangladesh amounted to €14.8 billion ($16.5 billion) per year on average between 2017 and 2020, representing half of Bangladesh's total exports. The bloc also provides millions of euros of aid to the country every year.

"Withdrawing the EBA arrangement would be a powerful tool because the EU is Bangladesh's most important trading partner, especially for garments. The EU could also threaten to reduce its development cooperation with Bangladesh, which is substantial," Lorch said.

"However, these measures are also controversial because if they are not effective in making the government ensure a free and fair election, common citizens could suffer, while the political situation would still stay the same," she added.

The United States also recently said it would restrict visas to Bangladeshi citizens who undermine elections.

But for the EU to impose such restrictions, Lorch said, the bloc needs to agree on a common position. And finding consensus within the EU on sanctions is usually difficult, she noted.

"It is also unclear whether such restrictions would be effective because they might just push Bangladesh closer to China, which is a highly authoritarian patron," Lorch underlined.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina
PM Hasina's Awami League party has kept tight control of Bangladesh since coming to power in 2009Image: PID Bangladesh government

What's the 'caretaker' system?

Hasina's party won the last two national elections in 2014 and 2018, both of which were marred by violence and allegations of vote-rigging.

Critics and opposition parties have called for the upcoming polls to be held under a neutral "caretaker" administration.

Bangladesh had such a system in place prior to 2011, and it was intended to prevent ruling parties from electoral manipulation and misconduct. 

Under that system, when an elected government finished its five-year mandate, a caretaker administration — consisting of civil society representatives — would take control of state institutions for three months and hold elections.

Non-partisan interim administrations conducted general elections in 1996, 2001 and 2008, and the polls were considered free, fair and inclusive by domestic and international observers.

But the Awami League party scrapped the system in 2011 following a Supreme Court ruling a year earlier that the provision was unconstitutional as it violated principles of representative democracy.

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Another rigged election?

"Two national elections of 2014 and 2018, and other local elections, including the recent by-election, have demonstrated beyond any doubt that a free and fair election cannot be held under a partisan government," Riaz said.

"If you go back to the history of the country, none of the elections held under incumbent was free."

Lorch is skeptical that the next national elections in the country will be free and fair. 

"The government has shown no readiness to allow for the polling to be conducted under a non-partisan caretaker government," she said.

"If the elections are conducted under the Awami League, they are likely to be rigged again as in 2018."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

DW Arafatul Islam Multimedia Journalist
Arafatul Islam Multimedia journalist focusing on Bangladeshi politics, human rights and migration.@arafatul