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Bangladesh: Can US visa threat ensure fair elections?

May 29, 2023

Bangladesh is scheduled to hold general elections by January 2024 and the US says it wants them to be free of electoral manipulation and misconduct.

A woman casts her ballot duing a by-election held in Bogra, Thakurgaon, Chapainawabganj and Brahmanbaria in Bangladesh
The US said the move was intended to 'support Bangladesh's goal of holding free, fair, and peaceful national elections'Image: Partho Sarothi Das

The United States said last week it would restrict visas to Bangladeshi citizens who undermine elections, in a preemptive warning as fears mount of turbulence in the upcoming vote. 

Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, said the move was intended to "support Bangladesh's goal of holding free, fair and peaceful national elections."

He said it would affect current or former officials, politicians, members of law enforcement agencies, the judiciary and security services "believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh." 

Blinken pointed out that actions that undermine the democratic election process include vote rigging, voter intimidation, the use of violence to prevent people from exercising their right to freedom of assembly, and the use of measures designed to prevent political parties, voters, civil society, or the media from disseminating their views.

Message from Washington

The new visa policy was announced ahead of national elections, not due to be held until January 2024. It comes after two controversial elections were held in Bangladesh in 2014 and 2018 that were marred by violence and allegations of major vote rigging.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's ruling Awami League party won both elections.

Ali Riaz, a political science professor at Illinois State University, said that the US is sending a clear message to Bangladesh.

"It is not a punitive measure per se, but a warning that the US may consider punitive measures, if needed," he told DW.

The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) welcomed the US curbs.

Calling the Hasina government an "authoritarian regime," Rumeen Farhana, the BNP's international affairs secretary, said that the policy reflected the people's longstanding demand for the restoration of voting rights in her country.

"It will ensure all the processes for organizing the upcoming parliamentary election in Bangladesh in a free, fair and acceptable manner," she told DW.

Bangladesh elite anti-terror unit accused of killings

How did the ruling party react?

Mohammad A. Arafat, a central working committee member of the Awami League party, expressed skepticism about the US move having much impact.

"I don't think this measure can do much. It is our job at the end of the day to fix whatever deficits we have in our electoral process," he told DW.

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 administration, a demand her government has rejected.

What does the opposition want?

Bangladesh had a "caretaker" 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 scrapped the system in 2011, following a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that the provision was unconstitutional as it violated principles of representative democracy.

The ruling party remained in power at the time of the national elections in 2014 and 2018.

No guarantees

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, believes that the US policy is meant to encourage the types of elections that happened before 2014.

"The US has wisely not made any mention of the caretaker system, whether in any of its recent public messaging or in this policy, to convey a message of impartiality," he told DW.  

"The caretaker system may have support from a broad array of Bangladeshis, but it has become associated exclusively with the BNP because of that party's consistent demand that it be restored," he added.

"So for the US, the goal is to create the conditions and incentives that result in the types of elections that came about when the caretaker system was in place, but without making any mention or reference to that system."

Professor Riaz believes that the US visa move is not a guarantee for a free and fair election in Bangladesh.

"The only way to ensure a free, fair and inclusive election is having a neutral government with no stakes in the election results, and the civil administration and law enforcers act as protectors of the people's right to vote," he said.

"It does not matter whether it is called caretaker government or an election-time government."

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina
PM Hasina has kept tight control of the South Asian nation since coming to power in 2009Image: Anupam Nath/AP/picture alliance

US-Bangladesh ties under stress

PM Hasina has generally been seen as a Western ally for a long time, due to her business friendly policies and opposition to radical Islamism.

She has maintained close ties with neighboring India, in particular.

China has also been seeking influence in the country, investing billions of dollars in infrastructure projects.

But ties between Dhaka and Washington have deteriorated in recent years over allegations of human rights violations.

In December 2021, the US imposed sanctions on Bangladesh's elite police unit, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and several of its former and current officials for "gross violations of human rights."

The battalion was accused of committing extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances of political activists.

Two former RAB commanders shared details about the unit's inner workings and activities, including murder, torture and forced disappearances, in a recent joint investigation by DW and Netra News.

They claim that high-ranking politicians use the elite force to silence political opponents. One of the whistleblowers referred to RAB as a "death squad."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

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