After a successful cameo at the G20 summit in Delhi earlier this month, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s recent visit to the US to participate in the UN General Assembly meets has been closely watched for messages by the international community.
With elections just around the corner, the PM seeking another term in office has been facing wider scrutiny on the conduct of elections and press freedom.
Speaking at the UNGA last week, the message from the Awami League leaders was quite unequivocal as she tried to put to rest issues raised on the conduct of free and fair polls.
“Bangladesh will continue to promote democracy, rule of law, and freedom of expression in line with Bangladesh’s constitution,” she said while addressing the General Debate of the 78th session.
In an apparent reference to US visa curbs on unnamed Bangladesh officials, Hasina iterated that the human rights issues are not politicized to put pressure on developing countries.
Hasina’s party has been in power for 15 years now and will square off with the opposition led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party BNP in elections slated to be held in January 2024.
The Awami League government has projected itself as the deterrent against religious fundamentalists and militancy. This includes the conviction of the accused including former ministers in the smuggling of arms from Chittagong Urea Fertiliser Ltd jetty for insurgents in the north-east.
Bangladesh has also opened channels of economic cooperation including approval of the four transit routes through Bangladesh to the land-locked north-east.
On the other hand, the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) has also come under intense scrutiny during PM Hasina’s recent visit to the US. The controversial display of both the Pakistani flag and the BNP flag during a protest outside the UN headquarters in New York has ignited a heated debate back home.
In terms of political messaging just ahead of the upcoming polls, the images coming from NY couldn’t have come at a worse time for a party that has found it difficult to find its feet after being in the opposition for a decade and a half now.
Bangladesh has over 119 million voters, and the numbers do not look good for the party, if it goes to the polls without forming strong electoral alliances.
BNP, led by Tarique Rahman, the party chairperson Khaleda Zia’s first son used to be in a political and electoral alliance with the outlawed Jamaat-e-Islami,
Founded by military dictator General Ziaur Rahman, the BNP initially followed a centrist agenda. However, over the years, the party inclined towards right-wing politics in 2001, when it gave two ministries to Jamaat, which won 4.28% of votes.
The alliance is in tatters now as the BNP is trying hard to create an umbrella alliance that will include the centrist and leftist political forces. In the process, the BNP may also try to woo the 5% voters of Jamaat.
The BNP’s overtures to India are also linked to its posturing on Jamaat, a long-standing ally of Bangladesh.
As for India, the strategic importance of Bangladesh with regard to its northeastern states is critical. The states are landlocked by Bangladesh and Myanmar and are connected to the mainland through a narrow passage called the Chicken’s Neck.
The Awami League for one has clearly demonstrated to India over the past 15 years that it will not allow its territory to be used by the north-east insurgent groups.
A strong democracy in Bangladesh is critical for the entire south-Asian region. And that’s the larger message which needs to resonate among all the key players as Bangladesh approaches its elections early next year.