In the midst of Bangladesh’s election season, a peculiar turn of events has shifted the focus from the traditional narrative of the ruling party versus the opposition to an unexpected player — the United States.
The announcement of Bangladesh’s election dates, scheduled for 7 January, was accompanied by an unprecedented live televised address, breaking from the norm in the country. The controversy surrounding these elections stems from the opposition’s demand for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to step down, alleging potential election rigging. Their proposed solution involves appointing a neutral caretaker government to oversee the polls. Sheikh Hasina has firmly rejected the idea, labelling the opposition as terrorists, leaving the opposition with the option to boycott the elections.
Recent events in Bangladesh have escalated tensions, with opposition workers marching towards the election office amid tightened security in major cities. Instances of violence have also been reported, adding to the already contentious atmosphere.
Surprisingly, the United States has taken on the role of an election commissioner in Dhaka, uninvited but actively engaging with key stakeholders. The US Ambassador has met with the Chief Election Commissioner and expressed a desire to meet leaders from the ruling party (Awami League), the opposition (Bangladesh Nationalist Party), and an extremist group (Jamaat-e-Islami). The primary goal is to broker peace and encourage the opposition to participate in the elections.
The Bangladesh government, however, has expressed dissatisfaction with the US intervention, emphasizing that this is an internal issue between the government and the opposition. The foreign minister dismissed the US mediation bid stating that embassy statements are irrelevant, and no one will be allowed to create barriers to the national election.
The standoff raises two critical questions: Can the US leverage its economic ties, particularly in the garment industry, to influence Dhaka’s political dialogue? And how does India perceive this situation, given its strong ties with both the US and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina?
The US holds considerable economic leverage over Bangladesh, being the largest importer of Bangladeshi goods, especially garments, which make up 85 per cent of the country’s total exports. With an export value of around $11 billion, the US has the potential to exert influence, but the question remains whether they will utilise this leverage.
India, having good relations with both the US and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina could potentially play a mediating role. However, recent statements from the Ministry of External Affairs indicate that there is no difference of opinion between India and the US on this matter.
As Bangladesh navigates through this unprecedented election season, the dynamics involving the ruling party, opposition and unexpected US intervention continue to evolve. The outcomes may not only shape the political landscape of Bangladesh but also test the relationships between key players in the region.