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EU turns the focus on upcoming elections in Bangladesh

This month, ambassadors of seven European Union member states have been meeting with the Minister of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Anisul Huq of Bangladesh in its capital, Dhaka, to discuss the upcoming elections in the country, which will be held in January 2024. This follows a high-profile meeting at the G20 summit in India between Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh, Shahriar Alam, to discussed bilateral ties.

The Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, has pledged that “the next elections will be credible, free and fair”, in response to EU demands that it wants all parties, including the “Bangladesh Nationalist party” (BNP), which is the main opposition party, to take part.  The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), started by the country’s first military ruler, allied itself in the past with the violent and extremist Jamaat-e-Islami, a party which was effectively outlawed in 2013 by the Supreme Court of Bangladesh.

On the website of the think tank Atlantic Council, Professor Mohammad A. Arafat, who teaches at the Canadian University of Bangladesh, writes:

“Some critics cite the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) boycotting the 2014 elections—having unilaterally deemed them rigged and invalid—as evidence of political repression by the incumbent government. However, it was in fact the BNP’s violent and anti-democratic behavior that lost it the election to the Awami League, the party of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. In 2014, BNP members instigated violent and destructive nationwide strikes and set fire to thousands of homes, cars, buildings, and businesses. On election day, they firebombed polling booths. 231 people died and a further 1,180 were injured in BNP-backed attacks.»

This year, protests instigated by the BNP, are seen by the governing “Awami League” party as attempts by the BNP to “destabilise the country in the name of movement and it is plotting to capture the state power by creating chaos.”

The geostrategic importance of Bangladesh

According to the Financial Times, the United States, the UK and Japan are among a group of “like-minded” democratic countries that have been meeting informally to discuss politics and governance in Bangladesh, with an eye to “positively engage” – in the words of one diplomat – ahead of the next election.

Bangladesh is seen as a pivotal country in the region, as India, China and the West are vying for closer links. The country signed up to China’s “Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)”, in 2015, but since then, Bangladesh has scrapped several key BRI projects and is now reassessing its involvement.

In turn, India can count Bangladesh as its largest trading partner in South Asia. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP) is taking a less conciliatory stance towards India than the ruling party.

Another geostrategic importance of Bangladesh is that it has been welcoming a lot of Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Myanmar, which has already caused domestic tensions. One million of them alone having been hosted in the southeastern Bangladeshi city of Cox’s Bazar.

According to foreign policy expert Agathe Demarais, of the Economist Intelligence Unit, “Bangladesh is a sometimes overlooked economic success story. The Country’s GDP per person, at around US$2,500, is higher than India’s.” She adds that “Bangladesh should count among [the] world’s 20 largest economies by 2050”.  The Economist writes: “A billiard-table-flat land on the combined floodplain of some of Asia’s biggest rivers, the country was once a byword for poverty, famine and natural disasters. Today, with a population of 170m, devastating human losses to cyclones are, thanks to shelters and warning systems, a thing of the past. So, too, are widespread food shortages. Child mortality rates are slightly better than the global average and half those of Pakistan. Female literacy, not long ago abysmal, is now 73%.”

Stressing the importance of the upcoming elections, the Financial Times has however noted that “Covid-19 and the spike in the price of imported energy since the war in Ukraine have threatened to reverse” some of the economic gains made by Bangladesh, leading to “a darkening political atmosphere.”