Bangladesh is scheduled to hold a general election on December 30, a vote that is seen as crucial for the survival of democracy in the South Asian country.
As the polling date approaches, opposition parties have been increasingly calling for international observers to monitor the polls, hoping that their presence on the ground will put pressure on Bangladeshi officials to ensure the election is free and fair.
Many inside and outside the country doubt the ability of Bangladesh’s institutions to organize a free, fair and inclusive national election, which may pave the way for a peaceful transition of power between various political parties.
The nation’s election commission, nominally independent, barely deviates from the ruling party’s line and almost always acts in accordance with the whims of the party in power.
In a bid to instill a sense of neutrality among the officials, the opposition has repeatedly sought the help of international observers.
Prerequisites of fair elections ‘still missing’
The country’s political opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has demanded that the ruling party, the Awami League (AL), quit before the polls and handover power to a caretaker government. A “neutral” administration, opposition politicians say, would ensure a level-playing field for all parties contesting the vote. But the idea has been rejected by the ruling party and their leader, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
The opposition made similar demands during the last general election in 2014. After Hasina and her party rejected the calls, the opposition boycotted the polls back then and the election was marred by violence.
But this time round, despite their demands remaining unmet, the BNP has opted to participate in the elections.
On November 15, the European Parliament passed a resolution on Bangladesh calling for a “peaceful, transparent and participatory” national election that would give the citizens of the country a chance to express a “genuine political choice.”
But the EU stuck to its last month’s decision not to send any observers to monitor the election in the politically volatile country.
Explaining the reason behind the decision, Josef Weidenholzer, a member of the European Parliament who has been closely following political developments in Bangladesh for a long time, told WNO: “The current political situation in Bangladesh does not display the existence of fundamental prerequisites of fair elections such as freedom of assembly, freedom of press etc.”
“The opposition is restricted, and its leader Khaleda Zia is sentenced to 10 years in jail lacking a fair trial. There is no independent election commission,” he said, adding: “Under such conditions, the presence of a European Parliament election observation mission would not fulfill its objectives and could be misused for distortive purposes.”
Earlier, in an interview with WNO, EU Ambassador to Bangladesh Rensje Teerink pointed to the lack of time, budget and security as the reasons for not sending any election observer mission to the Muslim-majority country this time round.
“Bangladesh has good local observers, who probably are going to do an excellent job monitoring the elections,” she claimed.
The EU’s decision is worrying, say analysts. “As several MEPs on November 15 quite aptly described the forthcoming election as ‘the country’s last chance to determine the course of its democracy and the rule of law,’ the EU should revisit its decision and act immediately,” Ali Riaz, a professor of political science at Illinois State University, told WNO.
“Budgetary constraints should not supersede the EU’s commitment to human rights, good governance and democracy,” Riaz stressed.
Michael Kugelman from the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars echoes a similar view. “Clearly the EU didn’t make this decision because it thinks the election will be so free and fair that observers would be superfluous,” he told WNO.
“I see this as an indication that the EU may be so skeptical about the election that it’s not bothering to send observers. Moreover, that would be a very troubling conclusion to make,” he said.
Foreign observers ‘important’
The European Union has sent strong election observer teams to the country in the past. There were 593 international and 159,113 local observers to monitor the election in 2008.
The EU sent many of those foreign observers at that time. The poll was considered as free, fair and inclusive, in which the Awami League party had secured a landslide victory. The party has been ruling the country since then. However, the one-sided election in 2014 severely damaged its credibility.
“Foreign observers’ presence has an enormous impact on the election commission, particularly on the field-level election officials. It also influences the behavior of the supporters of the candidates,” said Riaz. “It creates a mechanism of accountability and provides confidence among the voters.”
Underlining Bangladesh’s troublesome political situation and lack of independent democratic institutions, Kugelman said the Muslim-majority country will definitely need international observers during elections.
“If this election is not free and fair, then it will be hard to argue that Bangladesh hasn’t become a one-party state,” he said. “Given the high stakes, there are all kinds of good reasons to pull out all the stops to maximize the possibility that this election will be credible. And, one of those stops should involve having foreign observers on hand,” Kugelman noted.
However, the opposition’s hope for a large number of international observers is fading out fast as the election approaches. After the EU’s decision, the UK also decided not to fund an election observer mission to Bangladesh. The United Nations has reportedly turned down a similar request made by the opposition party.
Meanwhile, local election observer groups have announced plans to reduce the number of observers, citing a shortage of funds. This will likely make it difficult to mobilize enough local observers to monitor the country’s more than 42,000 polling stations, according to local media.
The election commission has also announced new guidelines that will restrict movement of observers in the polling stations. They have been asked not to use mobile phones in the stations as well as stay away from interacting with the media about any irregularities. The observers have also been advised by the commission not to go live on Facebook or Twitter to talk about the election on the voting day.
MEP Josef Weidenholzer urges the Bangladeshi government to create confidence among the international community about the upcoming election.
“The government should engage in substantive and serious dialogue with the EU on the rule of law, democracy, and human rights,” he said, adding: “As a result, the EU could offer assistance in establishing an independent election commission and technical support in regard to voter registration and identification.”