According to constitutional compulsions, the 12th national parliament election must be held within 29 January next year. The ruling Awami League is determined to hold the election within this timeframe at any cost. The election commission too is proceeding towards holding the election at the beginning of January. On the other hand, opposition BNP and its allies are adamant not to participate in the election unless it is held under a caretaker government.

Meanwhile, questions abound among various quarters as to whether an environment conducive to a free, fair and competitive election exists. The European Union (EU)’s decision not to send election observers has brought these questions further to the fore. This is because the EU didn’t take this decision casually sitting in Brussels. They sent a pre-election observation team to Bangladesh which held intensive discussions from 6 to 26 July with Bangladesh’s political parties, various government agencies, the civil society, the media and other stakeholders, based on which they drew up recommendations, leading to this decision.

Even before this, the US had raised questions regarding the appropriateness of the election environment. On 24 May this year they announced that visa restrictions would be imposed on political leaders, bureaucrats, members of the law enforcement agencies and judges who would impede the process of a fair and neutral election. The US ambassador to Bangladesh recently announced that the media would also fall under these restrictions.

After the announcement of the US visa policy, doubts arose in people’s mind regarding its application. Then on 22 September, when the announcement was made that the application of the visa policy had already begun, all doubts were put to rest. It became rather crystal clear that the US’s stand for fair elections in Bangladesh was not a mere rhetoric.

Incidentally, neutral observers within the country have all along being playing an active role in calling for a level playing field for a competitive election. We citizens have been pointing to the biased behaviour of the administration, the law enforcement agencies in particular. We have also raised the question of no-confidence in the election commission. Above all, we have even been exerting that the 15th amendment to the constitution necessitating elections under a party government, is a mountainous obstacle in the path of competitive elections. Unfortunately, those immersed in power politics, have not bothered to heed our contentions.

It seems that the ruling coterie has not come to its senses even after the EU decision not to send an election observation team and the beginning of the implementation of the US visa policy. Rather they appear to desperately convey that these decisions from foreign powers make no difference for them, although there are clear signs of unrest within their ranks.

It seems that the law enforcement agencies and even the judges are displaying callous disregard toward these actions by foreign powers. There are also others who recklessly term the foreigners as the “enemy”, alleging that they are interfering in our internal affairs.

We are afraid that callousness and the recklessness of the rulers and their associates are not only signs of foolishness, but also suicidal. They appear to fail to realise that there are many good reasons for the European and American interests in Bangladesh’s elections. They are our long-standing development partners. They have huge investments in Bangladesh’s development. In fact, the US is Bangladesh’s largest investor. Europe and America are the biggest buyers of our readymade garments. They are also large sources of our remittances. That is why a democratic, stable Bangladesh is important to them. Also, they want an effective democratic Bangladesh for geopolitical reasons.

Above all, democracy, human rights and the rule of law are values precious to the people of Europe and America. These are the main pillars of the US foreign policy. That is why the US has already imposed sanctions on RAB and seven other officials for violating human rights. The European Parliament has also recently passed a resolution expressing concerns about the state of human rights in Bangladesh.

the coming election becomes credible through the good behaviour of those who can influence the election, we should not only be able to avoid the visa restrictions, but also all the adverse consequences that will follow. This may also pave the way toward lifting the sanctions on the RAB.

The voting right is recognised by international law and many international treaties and covenants as an important human right. Thus, the denial of the voting right is not an internal affair of any country. It must also be recalled that Pakistan’s denial of our voting right and violation of our right to life led to our war of liberation and our independence with the help of foreign intervention.

We also fail to realise that the US didn’t apply its visa policy against some Bangladeshis on the spur of the moment. They took this decision based on serious scrutiny and documentary evidence. We must also remember that those who made those decisions are accountable to the judiciary and the legislature for their actions. Therefore, they could not have taken such serious decisions without robust evidence. In other words, for all the election officials, judges, bureaucrats and members of the law enforcement agencies, who stole the voting right of the people during 2018 election and are contemplating on doing the same this time, and are instigating others to this end, are in most vulnerable position. In fact, their world is increasingly shrinking.

And those who are preparing to again deny the voting right of the people and to hold a one-sided, controversial election by any means necessary, do not seem to realise that the application of visa restrictions on Bangladeshis long before the election is a ‘test case’ for the US. As it looks, the US is very serious about its decision to apply the visa restrictions.

It is clear that our foreign friends are trying to convey a message through their decisions that our electoral system is seriously flawed. In fact, it is a wake-up call for us. However, they are not telling us how to remedy those flaws. That responsibility lies with us.

Therefore, it is time for us to rise up and engage in dialogues and discussions to find a solution for making our electoral system effective and establishing a sustainable democratic system. This is the only way we will be able to repay our debt to our valiant freedom fighters who gave their lives to ensure our right to self-determination. We also owe it to our future generation. These dialogues and discussions must be aimed at finding a long-term solution which will ensure the neutrality of the election commission, the bureaucracy and the law enforcement agencies, and make the coming election free, fair and competitive.

Finally, if the coming election becomes credible through the good behaviour of those who can influence the election, we should not only be able to avoid the visa restrictions, but also all the adverse consequences that will follow. This may also pave the way toward lifting the sanctions on the RAB. On other hand, our failure to hold free and fair election will set us toward an uncertain course.

Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar is secretary of SHUJAN: Citizens for Good Governance.

Source: Prothom-Alo | October 04, 2023