Sanctions and the Bangladesh elections

Does the Awami League government face the risk of new targeted sanctions if it rigs the upcoming 2023 national elections?

Sanctions and the Bangladesh elections
Election posters hanging in the street during local elections in December 2021 in Naogaon district. Photo: Mehedi Hasan/ZUMA Press Wire/Alamy

Recently, Netra News reported that Bangladesh’s Washington embassy had removed from its website a press release which wrongly claimed that the chairman of the influential United States House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee spoke critically of the sanctions imposed by the US government on Bangladesh’s elite police force, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB).

It was no doubt embarrassing for the Bangladesh embassy to have to remove the statement from its website (though the same statement still remains on the government’s foreign ministry website) but the government’s attempt to claim that US politicians agreed with its grievances about the sanctions, had other more significant repercussions.

A few days later, Congressman Gregory Meeks issued a formal statement emphasising his support for the sanctions, the exact opposite of what the Bangladesh government had hoped and advertised. And, perhaps more significantly, the congressman’s statement seemed to suggest a link between sanctions and the country’s upcoming national elections.

The Bangladesh government has over recent years barely suffered diplomatically as a result of its move towards authoritarianism. As it left free and fair elections behind and moved — through repression of the country’s main opposition party — towards what many see as an effective one-party rule, Western democracies turned a blind eye to its excesses including to the government’s increased use of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

There are many reasons for this political posture but high on the list were: the secular Awami League government’s commitment to ensuring that the strategically important Muslim-majority country remained a bulwark against political Islamism; the country’s continuing positive economic trajectory resulting in reduced poverty and improved social indicators; and, more recently, Bangladesh government’s decision in 2017 to host nearly a million fleeing Rohingya refugees and the need for the international community to keep the government cooperative. 

In this scenario, it was easy to see why the Bangladesh government must have thought it could pretty much get away with anything, and were no doubt assuming that when it came to the general elections less than two years away, the international community would again just turn a blind eye to whatever rigging may be necessary to ensure that it won, and at the very most simply issue a critical statement.

Such a low key diplomatic response could of course still happen, but the US decision to use targeted sanctions — a new legal weapon in many countries’ diplomatic armouries — suggests that the West is no longer willing to give the Bangladesh government a free pass. And the repercussions of the Washington embassy’s false statement have given new impetus to the possibility that there could be a linkage between sanctions and the election. 

There is the statement issued by Gregory Meeks, the chair of the House Foreign Affair Committee. Immediately after mentioning his support for the US targeted sanctions, he stated, “that he was looking forward to working to help address human rights and democracy challenges in the country, including ensuring that the country’s next elections are free and fair.” (emphasis added).

This was followed by a committee aide stating that Meek’s view was that “the government needs to take steps to ensure that the next election is free, fair and credible, unlike the previous one… I think that the view is that if that does not happen then there will likely be a lot more consequences than what happened under the Trump administration.”

One should be careful not to over-interpret, and the aide did not specifically mention sanctions, but there is certainly a suggestion that “more consequences” could include them. 

This would not be the first time that the US imposed sanctions on political leaders of countries that do not allow a free and fair election. In November 2021 following “sham elections” in Nicaragua, the US Department of the Treasury sanctioned a government ministry and nine officials. Its description in the press release of the Nicaraguan elections — a “pantomime election that was neither free nor fair, and most certainly not democratic” — is not dissimilar to what took place in Bangladesh in 2018. As the US State Department’s Integrated Country Strategy notes: “A December 2018 national election marred by irregularities, violence, and intimidation consolidated the power of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her ruling party, the Awami League. This allowed the government to adopt legislation and policies diminishing space for the political opposition, undermining judicial independence, and threatening freedom of the media and NGOs.”    

Significantly, apart from the United States, sanctions against Nicaragua were also imposed by the United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union. A few months later, after President Ortega was sworn into office in Nicaragua, the US government followed this up with further sanctions including against the defence minister.

The crucial question, therefore, is whether the sanctions recently imposed upon Bangladesh’s RAB and others could create the necessary pressure on the current Awami League government to actually hold free and fair elections later in the year, in order to avoid new targeted sanctions.

The sanctions have already seen some significant changes in government conduct. Human rights groups report that there have been no deaths from “crossfires”, nor reports of disappearances since the sanctions have been imposed proving that these kinds of incidents are entirely within the control of law enforcement authorities and the government, and raising questions of why sanctions were not imposed sooner.

At present, there are no signs that the government is willing to make the kinds of concessions necessary that would ensure that the opposition parties take part in the elections, which would seem to require the reinstitution of something similar to an election-time caretaker government. As far as one can tell, the ongoing process of consultation over members of the new election commission — presided over, it should be noted, by a pro-government judge — is the normal kind of theatre that the government goes through to give an appearance of fairness. 

There are, however, some observers who think that even if the recent imposition of sanctions does not result in a change of position within the ruling party leadership itself, it may well result in a weakening in the highly politicised institutional support base that the party has created within the police, civil administration and so on which in the past helped the party undertake its dirty work relating to wholesale election manipulation. The argument goes that later in the year, the party will no longer be able to rely on these institutions to support it in rigging the election.

This seems an overly optimistic view of the impact of the sanctions — particularly if the government were to throw around the kind of money it is claimed it did before the last elections to the police and army. However, the dynamics could perhaps change if other countries decided to join the US in imposing targeted sanctions in the coming months, and also if these countries make it clear that new targeted sanctions would be imposed unless the elections are free and fair.

Right now, however, for Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League government, the calculation seems clear: On the one hand, there is the certainty of remaining in power through a rigged election, and on the other hand, there is just the possibility that if they do rig it, new targeted sanctions could be imposed. Right now, unless the equation changes, Sheikh Hasina will pick power any day.●

David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.

Correction: In one paragraph, the date of the next election has been corrected.