by M. Serajul Islam 19 November 2023
THE chief election commissioner, Kazi Habibul Awal, announced the election schedule with the classical ostrich frame of mind. He hid his head under the cover of the law in place of the ostrich that hid its head under the sand. It does not need a crystal ball to predict the outcome of such a frame of mind. The proverb says it all.
The irony is that the ostrich in the proverb was unaware of the outcome. Habibul Awal is not. He has said many times in recent weeks that the environment for holding a general election does not exist because of the differences between the ruling party and the opposition parties led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. He has, nevertheless, succumbed to the dictates of the ruling party as his two predecessors did.
Habibul Awal’s commission is treading the same path as the two previous commissions did. Kazi Raquibuddin Ahmed who headed the commission in 2014 gave an election in which there was no need for voting in 154 of the 300 seats of the parliament. Nurul Huda held an election in 2018 in which votes were cast the midnight before the polling day, earning the 2018 election the dubious nickname ‘the midnight election.’
Kazi Raquibuddin Ahmed and Nurul Huda used the Election Commission to give the Awami League a second and a third term as the commission acted as part of the ruling party. Unfortunately for Habibul Awal, his two predecessors had advantages that he did not. The 2014 and 2018 elections were held while the United States was leading the west in the war on terror. These powers and the United Nations, with India in the loop, were determined to keep the Bangladesh Nationalist Party from gaining power because of its alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami.
Habibul Awal is leading the Election Commission in a dramatically changed international environment. The war on terror is over. The United States is championing democracy and human rights as its global agenda. These are the bedrock of its Indo-Pacific Strategy with which it is attempting to integrate the 36 nations of the Indo-Pacific region or a half of the world’s population. More importantly, the Biden administration has created the Indo-Pacific Strategy to contain Chinese expansion in the region.
The Biden administration has pursued human rights and democracy as key elements of conducting its bilateral relations with Bangladesh, zeroing in on holding the country’s next general election in a free, fair, and peaceful manner. In the last half century of these relations, the United States has never sent so many high-level delegations to Bangladesh as it has since president Biden assumed office in January 2021. The US ambassador has never been so involved in Bangladesh’s politics as its present pmbassador Peter Haas has been.
The AL regime did not welcome the interest and initiatives of ambassador Haas. It has instead made attempts to circumvent the US embassy in Dhaka and contact the Biden administration in Washington. These attempts failed very badly and angered the regime profusely. US interest in a free and fair election has been the most bothersome for the AL regime because it knew that it would lose such an election to its nemesis, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, by a landslide.
The US embassy has, nevertheless, persisted carefully not to be seen taking sides. Its last-ditch attempt was days before the chief election commission announced the election schedule. The US ambassador and ambassador Donald Lu, assistant secretary for Central and South Asian affairs at the US state department, addressed a joint letter to the Awami League, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jatiya Party, encouraging the three to sit in an unconditional dialogue to resolve the impasse that showed the potential of becoming a major and dangerous catastrophe, if unresolved.
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jatiya Party responded positively while the Awami League had sat on it for days. Ambassador Haas called on the Awami League’s general secretary in his office for the response after it had become obvious that the regime was going to announce the election date without even considering the dialogue. The general secretary dismissed the US initiative because it was too late. The regime has, thus, decided to snub a US initiative for a free and fair election in denial of the reality that Bangladesh’s economic future is in the hands of the United States.
It would be interesting to research whether any country so heavily dependent upon the United States has dealt with Washington so casually as this regime. The regime has, thus, shot Bangladesh’s future in the leg, if not in the head, for Bangladesh will have to find a way to resolve its differences with Washington to survive economically. It is an absurdly uneven conflict between the world’s only superpower with a country hoping to become a middle-income country. The outcome of such an uneven conflict should not even be a matter of discussion.
The chief election commissioner has pushed Bangladesh towards such uncertainty that its predecessors did not have to. Habibul Awal has more in his cup than his predecessors. The people are waiting to vote having been unable to do so in the past 14 years. Their economic fortunes are on a sharp decline. Most importantly, they are now determined to fight for the same rights that the people had fought in 1971.
The regime’s rhetoric of the past two elections that it is fighting anti-liberation forces, arsonists, terrorists, for democracy, et cetera, has turned stale. Its Midas touch in using this rhetoric against its opponents is now worthless because of the availability of the dramatic technologies for gathering and disseminating information through WhatsApp, Facebook and YouTube that are now available to all and sundry. The truth is now almost self-evident.
The BNP-led opposition parties and their supporters have rejected Awal’s election schedule. They have too much at stake and are now close to ending their 15-year nightmare with the major foreign powers, supporting a regime change based on democracy, human rights and a free and fair election. It would be a denial of history to think that these people will return home to allow the Awami League its fourth consecutive term, an outcome even more unlikely to happen because the regime and its cadres have taken the rights of its opponents to live in their home since they came to power.
There is, meanwhile, another food for thought for the regime and Bangladesh’s foreign stakeholders. China now wants Bangladesh’s dangerous impasse to end through a free, fair, and participatory general election. China’s stand for a participatory general election is a dramatic one but brought about by India’s refusal to join the United States at the India-US 2+2 Meet in New Delhi to back a free, fair, and participatory election in Bangladesh.
The outcome of the New Delhi talks came as a disappointment to the anti-AL forces in Bangladesh although, ironically, India also did not gladden hearts of the Awami League by directly backing it as it had done in 2014 — the Sujata Singh initiative is still fresh in the minds of all Bangladeshis. India, perhaps, believed that a regime change would occur any way and, therefore, did not want the Awami League to believe that it was with the United States to push it from power for the future of its interests in Bangladesh where the Awami League in power or out of it has served it the best.
The United States, anxious not to take sides, waited optimistically for the Awami League to respond for an unconditional dialogue till it was snubbed. It, nevertheless, continues to be in the hearts of the anti-AL forces that believe that the regime change will come through the US-led west and the United Nations. It, nevertheless, allowed China to gain ground by failing to bring India on board with it in Bangladesh. A US-India agreement for a free, fair and peaceful general election in Bangladesh would have been in the interests of both if containing China in the region was their main objective
Postscript: Meanwhile, the Election Commission’s announcement of the election schedule makes sense if there is no tomorrow.
M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.
The article appeared in the New Age.