Bangladesh: US to send election observers amid opposition concerns | News | DW | 01.12.2018
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Bangladesh: US to send election observers amid opposition concerns

Opposition groups in Bangladesh insist that a caretaker government holds the December 30 general election and that international observers be allowed to monitor the polls. Rights groups express concern over a fair vote.

A senior official at the US embassy in Dhaka said on Saturday that Washington was planning to send 12 observer teams to monitor the December 30 parliamentary elections in Bangladesh.

Each team will comprise two observers and will monitor polls in various constituencies across the South Asian country, William Moeller, a political officer at the US embassy in Dhaka, told the Reuters news agency.

"The Bangladesh government has emphasized that it plans to hold a free and fair election," Moeller said.

"We welcome that and are providing funding for election observers who hope to see such an outcome," he added.

Moeller said the Bangkok-based Asian Network for Free Elections will also send a team of about 30 short- and long-term observers to the Muslim-majority country.

Bangladesh's neighbor, India, however, has no plan to send election observers unless Dhaka requests assistance, an official at the Indian High Commission said.

EU censures poll environment

On November 15, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for a "peaceful, transparent and participatory" general election in Bangladesh that would give citizens a chance to express a "genuine political choice."

Read more: Why Bangladesh needs foreign observers during election

But the EU stuck to its October's decision not to send any observers to monitor the election in the politically volatile country.

Explaining the reason behind the decision, Josef Weidenholzer, a member of the European Parliament who has been closely following political developments in Bangladesh for a long time, told DW: "The current political situation in Bangladesh does not display the existence of fundamental prerequisites of fair elections such as freedom of assembly, freedom of press, etc."

"The opposition is restricted, and its leader, Khaleda Zia, is sentenced to 10 years in jail lacking a fair trial. There is no independent election commission," he said, adding: "Under such conditions, the presence of a European Parliament election observation mission would not fulfill its objectives and could be misused for distortive purposes."

Read more: Bangladeshi opposition chief gets life sentence over deadly 2004 attack

Earlier, in an interview with DW, EU Ambassador to Bangladesh Rensje Teerink pointed to the lack of time, budget and security as the reasons for not sending any election observer mission to the country this time round.

"Bangladesh has good local observers, who probably are going to do an excellent job monitoring the elections," she claimed.

Clampdown on opposition

As the polling date approaches, opposition parties have been increasingly calling for international observers to monitor the polls, hoping that their presence on the ground will put pressure on Bangladeshi officials to ensure the election is free and fair.

Many inside and outside the country doubt the ability of Bangladesh's institutions to organize a free, fair and inclusive national election, which may pave the way for a peaceful transition of power between various political parties.

US official Moeller acknowledged there had been reports of harassment and intimidation before recent city corporation elections, which he said may have suppressed voter turnout.

"We raised these concerns at the time, so we are hoping we won't see the same issues in the national elections."

In October, the US National Democratic Institute said the December 30 polls would be held "amid a high degree of political polarization, heightened tensions and shrinking political space."

Khaleda Zia (Left) and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (Right)

Zia (L) and Hasina have dominated Bangladesh's poltics for nearly three decades

Neutral setup

In a bid to instill a sense of neutrality among the officials, the opposition has repeatedly sought the help of international observers.

The country's political opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has demanded that the ruling party, the Awami League (AL), quit before the polls and handover power to a caretaker government. A "neutral" administration, opposition politicians say, would ensure a level-playing field for all parties contesting the vote. But the idea has been rejected by the ruling party and their leader, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

But this time round, despite their demands remaining unmet, the BNP has opted to participate in the elections.

For the past 28 years, Bangladeshi politics has been dominated by two strong female politicians — Hasina and Zia. Hasina's AL has held power since 2009 and dispensed from 2014 with a practice of letting a neutral caretaker government oversee elections.

Bangladesh's economy has steadily improved under Hasina's rule but human rights groups have criticized increasing curbs on freedom of speech and the media in the past decade.

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Araftul Islam contributed to this story.

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