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Foreign forces besiege Hasina’s Bangladesh ahead of elections

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

Bangladesh, and not just its government, is under siege from overseas forces. Its forthcoming general election has clearly begun to exercise minds in nations abroad. Governments in the West and elsewhere have cheerfully been putting pressure on the Sheikh Hasina government to guarantee a free and credible election come January 2024. That has cheered the political opposition in Bangladesh to no end, for it seriously believes that such pressure is a sign that Sheikh Hasina’s days as Bangladesh’s leader are numbered.

Sheikh Hasina, it will be noted, recently returned to Bangladesh after a sixteen-day visit abroad. In the United States, she addressed the UN General Assembly in New York apart from spending time in Washington. On her way back home, she was in Britain for three days, where she met a number of British political personalities. It was during her stay in New York that the US authorities made it known that Washington had begun applying its visa restriction measures on Bangladeshi officials, politicians and others suspected to be undermining the electoral process in Bangladesh.

The pressure on Bangladesh has been growing. Even as the ruling Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party have been trading charges and barbs at each other over the American visa policy, an individual certainly active in Dhaka these days is US ambassador Peter Haas. Of course, American ambassadors have always waded into Bangladesh’s internal politics in recent years, but Haas appears to have outdone them through his rather aggressive position on the election scenario.  Journalists in Bangladesh, a section of them, have been keen on soliciting from him American government views on the situation in Dhaka. He recently appeared on local television to proffer the thought that US visa restrictions could also apply to the Bangladesh media.

That comment led to an uproar in the wider journalistic circles in Bangladesh, with leading journalists condemning the ambassador’s comments as an interference in the free working of the media in the country. The US diplomatic mission swiftly went for damage control, through asserting that Washington respects media freedom in Bangladesh. Whether or not that clarification undid the damage caused by Haas’ comments remains a question. But what is obvious is the interference, in less than diplomatic manner, by American and other foreign diplomats in Bangladesh’s politics.

One cannot quite blame them, for in the past couple of decades and more, it has become something of a norm for politicians in Bangladesh, on both sides of the aisle, to curry favour with foreign diplomats. Bangladesh’s leading politicians have been quick to accept breakfast invitations to the residence of the US ambassador. That did not go down well with Bangladesh’s citizens.

The political condition today has come to a pass where an irate Sheikh Hasina told a Bangladeshi-British audience in London before flying back home that in response to the US sanctions and visa policy, Dhaka would exercise its own sanctions on those who clamped sanctions on it. Her remarks were echoed in Dhaka by Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen, though it was not spelt out how Bangladesh means to go for sanctions of its own.

With all such circumstances developing in and around Bangladesh, US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller informed the media last week that Washington does not support any particular political party in Bangladesh and does not wish to influence the outcome of the forthcoming election in Dhaka.

Miller’s statement has, however, not allayed feelings among political observers in Dhaka, for they are quite convinced that all the pressure brought to bear on the Hasina government by the US, the European Union and others is aimed at seeing the back of the present administration in Dhaka. A new development in this context is the letter written by a group of Australian MPs to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, urging him to adopt a visa policy regarding Bangladesh similar to the position adopted by Washington.

The pressure, one cannot but note, goes up by a few notches. Such pressure, one might add, has so far only resulted in defiance on the part of the Bangladesh leadership, which insists that the election will be held under the provisions of the country’s constitution, meaning that there will be no caretaker regime to oversee the election.

A significant happening during Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Washington was her meeting with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who spent a good length of time with the Bangladesh leader obviously discussing political conditions in Bangladesh. Sullivan’s meeting with Sheikh Hasina assumes significance given that it is one of those rare times such a significant American administration figure has called on the Bangladesh Premier at a time that has Bangladesh on the global radar.

Back in Bangladesh, the government remains busy with its development projects. This month a number of mega projects will be inaugurated by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Politically the Awami League prepares for the election, while the BNP holds on to the hope that foreign pressure will persuade the government to hand over power to an interim administration which will preside over the election in January next year.

For Sheikh Hasina and her government, the tough job now is to weather the storm arising from overseas pressure for a fair election through convincing foreign leaders that despite the government being in charge, the election will be a credible exercise of the vote. The government will need to go out on a limb to convince the electorate of the many strides taken in the economic arena in the fourteen years since the Awami League returned to power in 2009. These achievements will, the party hopes, catapult it back to a new term in office.

Achievements apart, the ruling party’s election manifesto will, in addition, need to spell out measures aimed at slicing away at corruption, ensuring rule of law, putting a strict end to money laundering and bridging the widening chasm between rich and poor.

Neither the Awami League nor its supporters’ base relishes the thought of the country sliding back to the era when anti-history and an absence of secularism prevented Bangladesh from exercising the fundamental principles underpinning the War of Liberation in 1971 and forming the core of the constitution adopted in 1972.

Also Read: In Bangladesh, has Sheikh Hasina done enough to counter a desperate opposition in January elections?