2024 begins with a one-sided election in the ‘hood
Bangladesh is the first country to kick off what is billed as the biggest election year in history
Good morning! A whopping 65 countries, including India and the US, go to the polls this year. The first country to kick things off is Bangladesh, which votes tomorrow. Sheikh Hasina’s incumbent government is seeking a fourth consecutive term and the US isn’t too pleased. For starters, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, alongside 14 others, is boycotting the polls citing the unlikelihood of Hasina’s Awami League (AL) overseeing free and fair elections. The US is pushing for a democratic process and threatening visa sanctions. But India is pragmatic and would like to have the AL stay in power. Also in today’s edition: the week’s best longreads.
The Time magazine called 2024 a make-or-break year for democracy. About 65 countries are expected to go to polls this year with half of the world’s population voting in them.
The countries that will elect new leaders or re-elect incumbents include the world’s oldest democracy, the United States, and the biggest by number of voters, India. Both of them have much at stake, not only in their own domains but also in others as well. The US positions itself as the promoter and guardian of democracy worldwide but it has overseen democratic backsliding not only elsewhere on the globe but also in its own backyard. It was on January 6, 2021, that the US Capitol was attacked by frenzied mobs.
The Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) says the bedrocks of democracy are under threat.
“Almost half (85) of the 173 countries surveyed suffered a decline in at least one key indicator of democratic performance in the past five years, based on 17 metrics ranging from civil liberties to judicial independence,” IDEA said in its Global State of Democracy 2023 report.
In further proof of the trend continuing, the first elections of the year are set in Bangladesh where the ruling dispensation’s victory is a given as there is no opposition. Despite their burgeoning strategic partnership, India and the US have divergent positions on the impending result.
Pragmatism and self-interest guide India while the US sees the Bangladesh elections through the lens of democracy and human rights. Their virtually polar opposite positions have been a subject of discussion in the region and in Bangladesh itself.
The Bangladesh government has been trying to portray the January 7 general elections as multi-party and inclusive. A closer look shows an entirely different picture.
The electoral landscape of Bangladesh is defined by two large political parties – the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
The BNP, along with 14 smaller parties, is boycotting the elections.
These parties believe that under the AL government, seeking a fourth consecutive term in office, there is no possibility of free and fair polls. The near complete absence of the opposition from the elections severely undermines the credibility of the democratic process.
The international community, however, is divided in its response to the one-sided election. Neighbours, India and China, have put their faith in the AL government of Sheikh Hasina to hold peaceful, free and fair elections.
Russia and Iran have also lent support to Bangladesh’s electoral process. Russia has even accused the US and Europe of exporting ‘neocolonialism’ and ‘blatant interference’ in the internal affairs of Bangladesh.
The EU had sent a mission to Bangladesh to assess the prospects of a fair and free election in July 2023. In December a delegation from the EU met with various political leaders including government officials but there has been no clarity whether the EU will be sending election observers to Bangladesh.
While Bangladesh has invited foreign envoys as election observers, just 25 foreigners have so far applied to the election commission to observe the poll. Former Jamaican prime minister Bruce Golding will lead a 10-person Commonwealth team, including India, to observe the polls.
The US has been the sole critical voice, questioning the repressive and anti-opposition measures of the government. It has repeatedly called for democratic norms and standards to be respected in Bangladesh.
The US is apprehensive that the polls will not be free or fair. It has threatened visa sanctions against those in Bangladesh who are found “complicit” in or “responsible” for “undermining the democratic election process”. Yet, as The Wall Street Journal points out, the US’ opposition has been feeble. The Biden administration did not use the one big leverage it has, garment exports–$32 billion in 2022–to the US and Europe that practically keep the Bangladesh economy chugging.
The response of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been sharp: “So Bangladeshis wouldn’t be able to come to America if sanctions are imposed. So be it. ….We’ve enough employment opportunities in our country now.”
It was generally accepted that the US and India shared similar views about South Asia. However, their position on the Bangladesh polls has disproved that assumption. Their perceptions about the electoral situation unfolding in Bangladesh are diametrically opposite.
Given the strong Indo-Bangladesh ties as well as India’s traditional friendship with the AL leaders, Delhi’s support for the elections is not unexpected.
Indian support for the Hasina government may be due to its rather difficult experience with the BNP government when it was in power from 2001-2006.
Bangladesh at that time harboured several anti-Indian insurgents groups and there were terrorist attacks in India originating in Bangladesh. In the famous Chittagong Arms Haul case, several truck loads of arms seized were apparently intended for insurgent groups operating in India’s northeastern states.
With the memories of terrorist attacks continuing to haunt India, Delhi believes the only hope for stability and secularism lies in the re-election of Sheikh Hasina.
The turnaround in bilateral ties since 2010 has further strengthened India’s faith in the Hasina government. Delhi believes that the Hasina government understands India’s core security concerns better than the opposition BNP.
The Hasina government has reciprocated this faith by forging partnerships and expanding border logistics infrastructure to boost bilateral trade.
For India, any non-Awami League government will upset the positive bilateral dynamics that exist today. That is why pragmatism rather than upholding democratic norms seem to determine the Indian attitude to the impending elections in Bangladesh.
India would, therefore, much rather support a dispensation that it believes will preserve political stability than democratic norms.
As the US continues to examine Bangladesh through the lens of democracy, for the present, the Indian and the US perceptions on Bangladeshi politics are unlikely to converge.
Sreeradha Datta is Professor, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P Jindal Global University and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at ISAS-NUS, Singapore.
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