Between a rock and a hard place
Despite presiding over years of economic progress, the embattled Awami League government still faces huge challenges as general elections loom, warns Syed Badrul Ahsan
Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina seems to be engaged in a running battle with the United States. One cannot quite blame her, as the Biden administration has lately been taking measures which are clearly aimed at putting pressure on the Bangladesh leader and her government in the run-up to the general elections at the end of this year.
Not long ago, the US imposed sanctions on serving and former officers of the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite force which has aroused much controversy through its actions against individuals seen to be opposed to the government. The sanctions embarrassed the authorities. But that was not all. Only weeks ago, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a tweet, made it known that Washington reserved the right to deny visas to anyone in Bangladesh – politicians, serving and former government officials and their immediate family members and others – if questions arose about the credibility of the forthcoming elections.
Blinken’s announcement clearly cheered the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which now believes it has a good chance of returning to power, given that the threatened sanctions will prevent any tampering with the results of the vote. The ruling Awami League has tried putting a brave face on the situation, informing people that it has always believed in free, fair and credible elections. Ministers have gone around suggesting that Blinken’s threats were actually aimed at the BNP, for in their view the BNP has been putting up all sorts of obstacles to the holding of elections.
There are, of course, all the questions which relate to the elections of 2014, when as many as 154 Awami League lawmakers, out of a total of 300, were returned to parliament unopposed. In 2018, the elections were called into question in light of allegations that the ruling party engaged in midnight voting prior to the day of the elections, thereby creating the impression that the elections were anything but fair. It is in light of such facts that Dhaka is now engaged in a battle, albeit verbal, with Washington.
Some weeks ago Sheikh Hasina told parliament, in a voice tinged with bitterness, that the US had the power to remove foreign governments. She certainly had history in mind. On a visit to London, she told the BBC that the Americans did not want her in power. A few days after the Blinken statement, she publicly made it known that Bangladeshis did not need to fly thousands of miles over the Atlantic to visit America, that there were other countries where they could go. And more recently, she said that she was not willing to sell off the strategic St Martin’s Island to a foreign power – a clear reference to the United States – and that it did not matter if such a position led to problems for her. She also alleged that the opposition BNP was willing to trade the island in return for power.
In Bangladesh today, therefore, these are critical times. There is little question that in the 14 years in which the Awami League has been in power, the economy has made remarkable progress. Infrastructure, especially in the area of communication, has greatly improved. Agricultural production has gone up. The government was able to tackle the coronavirus pandemic to public satisfaction. Now, the country is poised to graduate from LDC status to the position of a lower middle income nation in 2026. All such achievements ought to be a shoo-in for Sheikh Hasina as she looks to a new term in office for her party.
But, given the history of politics in Bangladesh since the country emerged through a war of liberation against Pakistan in 1971, a multiplicity of factors – many of them linked to foreign interests – has consistently muddled the internal situation. Successive American administrations have not quite been able to reconcile themselves to the emergence of such nationalistic governments as those led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founder and father of the present prime minister, and by Sheikh Hasina. Conversely, the US has historically appeared to be content working with the military and quasi-military regimes which, for very many years, kept the country in their grip till the Awami League returned to power for the first time since 1975 in June 1996.
The pressure exerted on the Sheikh Hasina government is also a reality in terms of the foreign policy Dhaka has exercised in recent times. On Ukraine, Bangladesh has condemned the Russian invasion but at the same time has made it clear that Western sanctions against Moscow have been badly hurting the economies of small nations. Bangladesh’s foreign policy today is rather evenly balanced in terms of its dealings with India, Russia and China. Cooperation with India encompasses a diversity of areas, while with China, Bangladesh has been developing closer links in a number of economically beneficial regions. With Russia, the development of the Rooppur nuclear power plant is a significant instance of bilateral ties.
Obviously, Washington is not very happy with Dhaka’s increasingly close ties with Beijing. Its objective appears to be one of luring Bangladesh away from China and towards circumstances where it might end up being part of such regional bodies as the Quad. That places Dhaka between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it has its time-tested friend Delhi now part of Quad and reaching newer heights in its ties with Washington (as witnessed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent state visit to the US). On the other, it cannot antagonise China, which recently helped Bangladesh and Myanmar to reach an initial deal on the return of a thousand Rohingya refugees to their homes in Rakhine state.
At home, pressure from the opposition grows, though it is not clear if it will be able to sustain it, despite the US threat over visas. The BNP and other parties in the anti-government tent have been clamouring for the forthcoming elections to be conducted by a caretaker administration, a demand the Awami League government has dismissed on the grounds that the caretaker provision in the constitution was abolished in 2015.
For a vast majority of Bangladesh’s citizens, it is the Awami League, warts and all, which remains the embodiment of hope for the future. True, there are all the allegations of corruption, of money laundering, of media suppression through draconian laws. But there is that other, bleaker picture – of the opposition BNP and its allies taking Bangladesh, should they manage to come to power, back to the darkness which loomed over the country between 1975 and 1996 and again between 2001 and 2006. Those were times when history was undermined, Bangladesh’s political heritage was pushed under the rug and governance slipped into the hands of forces too willing to adopt the denial of history as a plank of policy.
On Sheikh Hasina’s judgment and on the political astuteness of her government depends the route Bangladesh will take in the future. It is an embattled administration, buffeted as it is by bad winds all around, which the Prime Minister leads. She will need to navigate the boat with wisdom and with patience. And she will need to reach out to all sections of the population, to convince them that her policies, and her party, matter.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a Bangladeshi journalist and political commentator based in London. He is the author of biographies of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the country’s first prime minister Tajuddin Ahmad