Kamran Reza Chowdhury, Dhaka
Bangladesh’s political landscape has been shaken by the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s May 24 announcement of: “a new visa policy to promote free and fair elections. Under this policy, we can impose visa restrictions on individuals and their immediate family members if they are responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.”
Blinken’s disclosure stunned ruling party elites and powerful groups. The new visa restriction declaration was welcomed by the opposition who have had three difficult elections.. (https://www.economist.com/asia/2023/05/24/sheikh-hasina-is-asias-iron-lady).
The main political opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies view the U.S. visa policy as aimed at ameliorating democracy in Bangladesh.
The opposition alleges that the ruling party had been preparing the ground to rig the next general elections in January 2024 to prolong its tenure. The ruling party raises counter allegations that the BNP and its allies were the champions of introducing vote rigging in the past, and brushes aside the charges of a planned manipulation of the next general elections.
On Thursday, May 25, a member of the BNP’s highest policy-making standing committee, Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury at a press conference said the new U.S. visa policy would at least play a supporting role in holding the next polls fairly and credibly. (https://www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/diplomacy/news/us-visa-policy-bnp-hopes-it-can-help-ensure-credible-polls-3329421).
Khasru demands that the present government support the opposition’s demand: of holding the next general elections under a non-party caretaker administration.
Reacting to the U.S. visa policy, the ruling party said they also wanted a free, fair and participatory election as demanded by Washington D.C. The party general secretary, Obaidul Quader, May 25 told journalists that the government would assist the election commission to hold the next general elections in free, fair and impartial ways. But, he said, the ruling party must resist the BNP and its allies who would attempt to burn vehicles and kill people in the street in the pretext of strikes to stop the next polls.
Why does the new U.S. visa policy puzzle the ruling class? Many of the powerful and influential people in Bangladesh have interests in the U.S., Canada, Australia and other western European countries. The family members of many of these powerful people study and live in the U.S. and other western countries. The U.S. visa policy may also influence the visa regime of other countries.
The threat of denial of visas might cause political leaders, the members of the law enforcing agencies, election commission officials, the public servants and others to give a second thought before risking questionable actions.
For instance, on May 24, some anti-government candidates in the Gazipur city corporation elections claimed that the ruling party men would not dare to rig the polls owing to the new visa policy of the U.S. government. Significant number of voters turned up at the polling centers, unlike previous years, and no incidents of violence and intimidation were reported on election day. The ruling party candidate lost.
Now the question remains whether the opposition would benefit from the new visa policy. The answer is both yes and no.
The ruling Awami League supports the election commission to hold the next general elections under the provisions of constitution. They summarily reject the idea of polls under a non-party administration.
The opposition leaders say opposition activists do not fear the fierce elite force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and the police. They threaten to pour on to the streets demanding a general election under a non-partisan caretaker government. They vow to paralyze the country unless their demands are not met. If the opposition could hold peaceful political programs, the ruling party would be under more public pressure.
The risk here is violence: Bangladesh’s political culture views street violence as a genuine show of party strength.
If the opposition resorts to violence as a means of realizing their demands, the Awami League would counter with similar measures by unleashing its party workers to counter them in the street to stop the “anarchy of the opposition” to “uphold the democratic electoral procedure” that is holding the next general elections under the administration of the present government in line with the constitutional arrangements.
They would tell the U.S. and western diplomats that the opposition alone has disrupted the democratic electoral system through violence, and it would be counterproductive to accede to their demands.
Both the opposition and the ruling party are prepared to hold to their current positions despite the risk to the democratic structure of the country. Right now, there seems only a slim chance of a political dialogue to overcome this political impasse.
The consequences of the same situation in 2006 led to an unelected government and the political parties and their leaders paying heavy fines and imprisonment.
Let our political leaders understand the lesson of 2006. There is no substitute for dialogue in a true democracy.