Why the United States Should Pay Attention to the Bangladesh Elections
The upcoming elections in Bangladesh, scheduled for January 2024, hold significant importance despite potentially being overlooked by many. Despite its current status as a poor and underdeveloped nation, Bangladesh is experiencing rapid growth and is on track to become a developing country by 2026. Additionally, its geostrategic location as a bridge between South Asia and East Asia, as well as South Asia and the Middle East, attracts considerable attention from both China and the United States. Therefore, the outcome of these elections will have political and economic consequences that extend beyond its borders, influencing the broader region.
Given concerns about corruption and violations of civil rights in Bangladesh, it is crucial to safeguard the democratic process and ensure that the upcoming 2024 elections are free, fair, and capable of restoring political stability in the country. Calls from the opposition in Bangladesh to establish a caretaker government before the elections could have counterproductive effects, undermining democratic institutions and potentially hindering the country’s progress. This, in turn, could lead to a freeze in international aid and ultimately harm the Bangladeshi people.
During the previous caretaker government period between 2006 and 2008, which was supported by the military, Bangladesh witnessed a further erosion of its democratic values. Prominent figures from both sides of the political spectrum faced corruption and graft charges, as part of a national effort to cleanse the political system. Reinstating a caretaker government in the current geostrategic environment would not necessarily benefit the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), as they might anticipate. As the famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” There is no reason to believe that a caretaker government will bring about significant positive changes to the deeply entrenched political habits in Bangladesh.
Instead, both political parties should find ways to preserve the democratic process and ensure free and fair elections in this politically divided country. The United States, as a champion of human rights and democracy, can play an instrumental role in helping Bangladesh overcome this political crisis, as long as it maintains a neutral stance. The United States should be invested in this not only due to its commitment to liberal values but also due to the broader geostrategic considerations of superpower competition and the potential for improved bilateral relations with Bangladesh, which is poised to become one of the world’s largest economies.
Admittedly, the relationship between the United States and Bangladesh has experienced a strain of mistrust and suspicion, stemming from Washington’s criticism of human rights violations in Bangladesh, while the latter accuses the U.S. of interfering in its internal affairs. Against this backdrop, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited Washington, D.C. in late April to celebrate 50 years of partnership between the World Bank and Bangladesh. However, this visit can be viewed as a missed opportunity on the political front, as none of the officials from President Biden’s administration made time to meet with Prime Minister Hasina, sending a clear message of dissatisfaction with her remarks.
Nevertheless, in a prior meeting between Bangladesh’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Dr. AK Abdul Momen, and U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in Washington, D.C., Blinken emphasized the importance of free and fair elections rather than the alternative of a caretaker government. Both countries are celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations and still have the potential to further strengthen their ties, despite recent disagreements.
Furthermore, China perceives the current tensions between the U.S. and Bangladesh as an opportunity to expand its influence in South Asia. China has been offering generous investments and loans to Bangladesh, without criticizing the country’s democratic backsliding, and has already provided several loans in the past. China has also expressed its willingness to work with all parties in Bangladesh if it serves its interests in the region.
Currently, China’s influence on Bangladesh remains limited, as the South Asian nation has a diverse portfolio of international funding and has received significant aid from other powers such as Japan, India, and the United States. However, if the situation is not addressed promptly, Bangladesh may increasingly turn to China for more investments and find itself in a situation similar to that of Sri Lanka.
Looking ahead, the United States should adopt a pragmatic approach, taking steps to help Bangladesh safeguard its democratic institutions while also advancing technological cooperation on climate change, renewable energy, and other areas. This support would assist Bangladesh in playing a larger role in global supply chains, particularly as a manufacturing center, including in the semiconductor sector, and enable it to realize its potential as a global middle power.
The author is A renowned international relationship expert in South East Asia with specialization in China, India, the USA, the EU, and Bangladesh. authors have stayed in Bangladesh, the USA, the UK, and India to understand the ground reality of the states and people before every election.