Ambassador Charles Whiteley on an election exploratory mission in Dhaka on 10 July discussed the state of democracy and relations with the governing Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader. - Photo: 2023

The EU Probes into Acceptable Election Practices in Bangladesh

Analysis by Mujtoba Ahmed Murshed*

DHAKA. 12 July 2023 (IDN) — As the upcoming general election in Bangladesh approaches, political activities are intensifying on the streets. Each political party is striving to appeal to the electorate in their own way. Influential countries from around the world are also closely observing the state of democracy and the election process in Bangladesh. Currently, the pre-election observation team from the European Union (EU) is in Dhaka, led by Dimitra Ioannou.

The EU delegation has already conducted several meetings to gain insights into the election landscape. They seek to understand the prevailing trends, the potential for violence, government interference, as well as the security and law enforcement situation. Their interest and expectation are clear: the next general election in Bangladesh should be conducted in a free, fair, acceptable, and violence-free environment.

While the government has assured that the election will be held under such conditions, the opposition parties hold a different opinion. These differences will allow the EU representative to gauge the safety and freedom of movement for election observers in Bangladesh.

Last year in July, the EU held a meeting with the Election Commission. Following that, Charles Whiteley, the EU Head of Delegation in Bangladesh, recently met with the Election Commission to express the EU’s willingness to send an observer team for the national elections in January 2024. Whiteley expressed his satisfaction with the positive response from the Bangladeshi authorities regarding this matter.

Western nations do not consider only the polling day and the three preceding months as the election period. Rather, they view it as a broader timeframe, encompassing the election year and subsequent months. This extended period includes aspects such as freedom of expression, the right to assembly for opposition parties, the involvement of civil society in the electoral process, as well as the protection of human rights and democratic principles. The treatment of the opposition by the government is a matter of keen interest.

Prior to the EU delegation’s arrival in Dhaka, a separate issue regarding the upcoming elections in Bangladesh was raised on European soil. Six members of the European Parliament wrote a letter to Joseph Borrell, the head of the European Union’s foreign affairs, urging him to play a role in ensuring free, fair, and impartial elections in Bangladesh.

The letter, dated June 12, was signed by Ivan Štefánek (Slovakia), Mikaela Szydrova (Czech Republic), Andrekovachev (Bulgaria), Karen Melchior (Denmark), Javier Narat (Spain), and Heidi Hautala (Finland).

The European Union comprises Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Republic of Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden.

In their letter, the members of the European Parliament expressed concern over human rights violations in Bangladesh. They called for the restoration of democracy and the rule of law in Bangladesh before the upcoming national elections.

The letter highlighted that the current government of Bangladesh has been in power since 2009 and has undermined the democratic rights of citizens while failing to uphold the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution.

The government has allegedly employed tactics such as filing false cases, torture, abductions, and extrajudicial killings against leaders and activists of anti-government political parties to consolidate power. Undoubtedly, the content of this letter will shape the discussions and deliberations of the EU delegation in Dhaka, serving as a framework for their assessment.

The EU is concerned about the state system and the electoral process in Bangladesh due to collective pressures from member states to protect their investments and ensure ethical practices in the sourcing of clothing, with societies showing reluctance to support garments produced under poor working conditions.

Consequently, they believe that strong governance and a robust democratic foundation are necessary for a country to provide its workers with a solvent and stable lifestyle.

The EU has a significant foreign direct investment (FDI) stockpile of $2 billion in Bangladesh. Ambassador Charles Whiteley, regarding EU investments, stated, “I think, if the policy is changed from Bangladesh’s side, it can change quickly. Bangladesh is an excellent place for business.”

A recent study titled ‘Strengthening Bangladesh-EU Trade and Economic Cooperation: Issues and Policy Priorities’ revealed that Bangladesh exports products worth $23 billion annually to 27 European countries. Enhancing capacity and product variety can further increase this amount by another $18 billion. In the period 2000-2001, Bangladesh’s total exports to the UK and EU amounted to $2.5 billion. Over the past 20-21 years, this figure has grown tenfold to reach $25 billion.

Notably, 90 percent of Bangladesh’s export products to Europe consist of ready-made garments. Moreover, net FDI inflows from EU countries have reached $3.5 billion in the past five years, accounting for nearly a quarter of the total FDI inflows during that period.

To achieve economic prosperity in Bangladesh, advanced technology and technical knowledge are crucial. Good governance, respect for human rights, and democracy are essential to establish strong ties with developed nations.

Salim Raihan, the Executive Director of the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (SANEM) and a professor in the Economics Department at Dhaka University, stated in an interview with the German public, state-owned international broadcaster news agency Deutsche Welle, “The European Union is our biggest trading partner. The commercial benefits we currently enjoy will continue for three more years after our graduation from the least developed country status in 2026.

However, the majority of our export products are garments. Diversification is necessary in this regard. It would be advantageous if Bangladesh can obtain advanced technological support and know-how through bilateral and multilateral agreements with the respective development partners in the West. We can enhance the quality and variety of our products while attracting more investments.”

The EU’s relationship with Bangladesh dates back to 1973. The EC Bangladesh Commercial Cooperation Agreement, signed in 1976, was replaced by the Third Generation Cooperation Agreement in March 2001. This agreement further strengthened the relationship by facilitating cooperation in various areas, including political dialogue. The Country Strategy for Bangladesh, covering the period from 2007 to 2013, focused on supporting Bangladesh’s efforts to combat poverty and achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015.

This underlines that EU member states have a vested interest in Bangladesh’s economic progress. Therefore, they prefer to voice their concerns regarding Bangladesh’s political affairs to safeguard their investments and ensure the uninterrupted supply of clothing to their citizens. Their goal is for the next election in Bangladesh to be held in a free, fair, acceptable, and violence-free environment.

In this context, it can be observed that the EU expects the government of Bangladesh, under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, to play a significant role in creating such an environment. The content of the letter and the language used by EU parliamentarians reflect this viewpoint.

However, the political reality in Bangladesh suggests that the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) does not uphold democratic values. The BNP’s ascension to power in Bangladesh did not occur through a democratic process. During their rule, a public meeting of the Awami League held in Dhaka on August 21, 2004, was subjected to a grenade attack facilitated by the BNP, resulting in the loss of lives of 24 leaders and activists of the Awami League, though Sheikh Hasina, the prime target, luckily survived.

Therefore, it is reasonable to question whether the BNP, with a history of resorting to terrorism and violence, will repeat such rogue tactics and turn the next general election into an event marked by acts of terror and bloodshed. History suggests that they will not adhere to a clean path but instead pursue anything that leads them back to power.

Given the presence of an opposition party like the BNP, which has shown a propensity for employing any means to regain power, ensuring non-violent, free, and fair general elections in Bangladesh cannot solely rely on the ruling Awami League. The global powers need to recognize this ground reality.

However, it is also incumbent upon the ruling party to provide equal opportunities for other political parties to conduct their campaigns and participate in the election. In this regard, the Awami League should play the role of a genuine guardian.

*Mujtoba Ahmed Murshed is a political analyst, poet, and writer with extensive experience serving as a political advisor in a Western embassy in Bangladesh. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Ambassador Charles Whiteley on an election exploratory mission in Dhaka on 10 July discussed the state of democracy and relations with the governing Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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