What does the West want in the name of a ‘free and fair election’?

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Published on January 22, 2024
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Professor Mizanur Rahman:

After the 7 January election, many states such as China, India, and Russia congratulated prime minister Sheikh Hasina for her fourth straight victory. However, the reactions from the West were a bit critical and mostly careful. Therefore, the French newspaper Le Monde called it ‘mixed reactions’.

In a statement published on 8 January 2024, Mathew Miller, spokesperson of the US State Department, states that the election held on 7 January 2024 was not free and fair. It reads, “The United States remains concerned by the arrests of thousands of political opposition members and by reports of irregularities on election day. The United States shares the view with other observers that these elections were not free or fair and we regret that not all parties participated.”

Generally, Canada’s foreign policy aligns with the USA. This time the language of Canada is similar to that of the USA. Both of the countries express support for the ‘democratic aspirations’ of the people of Bangladesh. The USA did not explain why they thought the election was not ‘free and fair’. In this regard, Canada clearly said that fair elections need viable opposition, independent democratic institutions, and the right to freedom of the press. Australia also commented that the election was not ‘free and fair’; they, however, recognized that the election was peaceful. This contradicts the US and Canada’s position on electoral violence. Very few violent incidents were emphasized by them, whereas some democracies are marred by more violent incidents.

After the 7 January election, many states such as China, India, and Russia congratulated prime minister Sheikh Hasina for her fourth straight victory. However, the reactions from the West were a bit critical and mostly careful. Therefore, the French newspaper Le Monde called it ‘mixed reactions’.
Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states, “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions: (a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; (b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors; (c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.”

This means that every citizen has the right to participate in the running of public affairs of their country, either directly or through freely chosen representatives. Article 25 of the ICCPR emphasizes the right of every citizen to vote and to be elected. Interestingly, this provision does not mean any group right.

A Handbook on International Human Rights Standards on Elections published by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2021) states, “The notion of democratic elections may be said to be rooted in the fundamental principle of self-determination. Participatory rights under article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are related to, but distinct from, the right of peoples to self-determination.”

Whether any person or political party will participate in an election or vote depends on their choice. The fairness of an electoral process depends on whether human rights relating to elections, as mentioned in the above handbook, have been ensured during the period of the electoral process. As electoral rights are not collective rights, but rather individual rights, every state should ensure individual rights relating to elections. If any party decides not to participate in the election, it is their liberty and could not tarnish the electoral process. Rather, violent resistance against any electoral process is a crime not protected by any international human rights instrument.

For holding free and fair elections, the following rights need to be ensured as included in the UN Handbook and Bangladesh Constitution: right to freedom of expression, association, and movement, right to human security and freedom from fear, and right to electoral justice. The Daily Prothom Alo, Daily Star, Daily New Age, Daily Manabjamin, Daily Naya Diganta, and many more newspapers have been criticizing the government.

BNP organized nationwide protest rallies and assemblies. The government tried to take action against the arsonists so that the election could be free from fear. This fear factor might have contributed to the comparatively low turnout. The Election Commission of Bangladesh took action against those who violated electoral laws. On election day, the candidature of Bangladesh Awami League aspirant Mostafizur Rahman Chowdhury from the Chittagong-16 constituency was canceled because he assaulted a journalist. Very few electoral irregularities have been reported in the media. Even those irregularities could be redressed through the electoral justice system.

In an interview with the Deutsche Welle on 8 January 2024, Michael Kugelmann, deputy director of the South Asia Institute, Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank, says, “By definition, it’s very hard to have a fair election when the main opposition party does not participate. … I don’t see how you can call that a free and fair election- not to mention the climate that played out in Bangladesh in the weeks and months before the election which presented a non-level playing field that quite frankly made it difficult for any party wanting to oppose the ruling party to mount a viable campaign.” Which definition does our learned friend follow? Does he follow the UN Handbook from which I have quoted? No.

Bangladesh tried to remain true to the UN guidelines on human rights and elections. The opposition parties organised anti-government protests all over Bangladesh in the weeks leading up to the national elections. However, as the Bangladesh Constitution and International Human Rights Law guarantee ‘peaceful’ protest, no violent protest is permitted. Every legal system prosecutes violent activities because those activities are crimes and not protected by the Constitution. After the 28 October violence, some BNP leaders were arrested. This has been quoted out of context to malign Bangladesh.

Every legal system prosecutes violent activities because those activities are crimes and not protected by the Constitution. After the 28 October violence, some BNP leaders were arrested. This has been quoted out of context to malign Bangladesh.
It appears that the USA is talking in line with the position of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) which called it a ‘sham’ election. Not only that, the US statement did not mention anything about the attempt of the BNP to thwart the electoral process with violence. It seems to be a statement prepared well before the election to accuse Bangladesh.

In the statement, Mathew Miller observes that Bangladesh shares a vision of ‘a free and open Indo-Pacific’ with the USA. That’s true. However, the statement indicates that the national interest of the USA wants Bangladesh to get on board the QUAD that attempts to contain China. However, Bangladesh follows a foreign policy of non-alignment. China is one of Bangladesh’s great developing partners. For this reason, it cannot be a part of containing China, nor can it work against India to appease China. Bangladesh should prioritize its national interests before anything else. Whoever wants to work with Bangladesh and help it flourish economically, Bangladesh should work with them.

Interestingly, the United States did not use any harsh criticism, rather it wanted to deepen its relationship with people and economic relationships. The reason has been nicely explained by Michael Kugelmann in the above-mentioned interview. He argues that China, India, and Russia are ‘very happy’ to collaborate with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in contrast to the West led by the US. He thinks the US could harm Bangladesh by imposing economic sanctions; however, it refrains from doing so due to the geopolitical considerations. The US thinks, argues Mr Kugelmann, ‘a strategic state being in the middle of the Indo-Pacific region’. Therefore, he concludes that the US has taken a careful position. The US statement of 8 January 2024 published a seemingly cautious statement; however, it does not shy away from the blame game!

In brief, no state takes any step against any state out of sheer liking for democracy or human rights. Every state endeavors to serve its national interests. The recent US approach to Bangladesh is determined by the US geopolitical interests in the Indo-Pacific. At any cost, Bangladesh should follow the foreign policy dictum of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's ‘friendship to all, malice towards none’. Bangladesh should maintain an amicable relationship with China, India, and the West.

Writer: Former chairman of National Human Rights Commission, Bangladesh