'US visa policy alone cannot ensure fair election'

'US visa policy alone cannot ensure fair election'

Ali Riaz, distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University, analyses the relationship between the US visa policy, Bangladesh's politics, and broader geopolitics in an exclusive interview with Naimul Alam Alvi of  The Daily Star.

The US Department of State has stated they are implementing visa restrictions on Bangladeshi individuals who have undermined, or are involved in undermining, the democratic election process in Bangladesh. What do you think is the significance of this policy?

The US visa policy was announced on May 24, and what we have heard recently is basically an acknowledgement that the US government has started to act on that policy. The US wants to send a signal which they have been sending for the last two years: that they'd like to see Bangladesh not have a repeat of the 2014 or 2018 national elections. The major implications of this policy are 1) a message that they are not convinced by the assurance of the Bangladesh government that the current process is going to deliver a free, fair, inclusive and peaceful election; 2) they would like to see the Bangladesh government take steps toward creating a conducive environment; and 3) they see that there are individuals who are acting in a manner detrimental to the democratic process.

With respect to the election, I tend to believe that the US visa policy is to help the process. But this in and of itself is not going to ensure a free and fair election.

Does the US government have geopolitical interests in Bangladesh's national election beyond its stated commitment to a fair and democratic process?

A policy, when enacted, is not entirely bereft of larger strategic interests or, in this case, broader US policies. Over the last two years, US delegates who visited Dhaka repeatedly insisted on this fair election. They've seen that the human rights situation and media freedom have deteriorated significantly. They have seen violence in politics, mostly perpetrated by state actors against the opposition. Those are the things they didn't like. But the most important thing is that this policy is not entirely separated from how the US sees Bangladesh's role in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in South Asia and also on the global stage. The US intends to see the Indo-Pacific as a region which doesn't fall into any one country's sphere of influence, particularly China's influence.

The US position with respect to a fair election is somewhat a reflection of the aspirations of the Bangladeshi people. The people want to have an election where they can vote, their voices are heard, their opinions matter and they are part of these political processes and the governance. It is not about reacting to US policy or not. It is about ensuring that Bangladeshis do have this opportunity – in fact, this right.

How, then, is the national election in Bangladesh connected to the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US? The US, to my understanding, would like to see a government which is accountable and represents the will of the people. A government which has a democratic mandate to govern is likely to make policies and take a position which is consistent with democratic principles. And if it is democratic, then in all likelihood it would align with the democratic forces globally. That would benefit the US, instead of if a country was authoritarian or aligned with a country which does not support democratic practices globally.

Does the US have a similar approach to democracy for all countries as they currently have in Bangladesh's case?

Absolutely not. No policy is made in isolation from the broader concerns and broader policy outlook. The US considers countries based on their relationship, and their geostrategic and geopolitical importance. Hence, the policies would in some cases be different. We can find contradictions in it. But remember that all states pursue national interest first. No state is a charity organisation. And national interest is not a one-size-fits-all matter. Definitely, you and I and everyone else can criticise US policies towards various countries. But, at the same time, neither you nor I can simply ignore the fact that the US would pursue its interest the way it sees fit. But with respect to Bangladesh, my point has always been that the fate of Bangladesh's democracy and governance should not be decided in Washington, New Delhi, Beijing or somewhere else. It should be decided by the people of Bangladesh.

The new US visa policy
What the US is asking here today, and the European Union is indicating, is that an opportunity should be given to Bangladeshi people. Bangladesh hasn't had a fair and inclusive national election for 14 years now. That is the point.

Two elections have been manipulated and engineered in a fashion that have delivered victory to a political party which has become more authoritarian by the day. But most importantly, there's a lack of moral legitimacy of this government. Bangladesh cannot afford to have another election like those of 2014 and 2018.

With the US sanctions on Rab and the new visa policy, and Bangladesh being more critical of the US lately, how do you see the US-Bangladesh relationship going?

US policy with respect to Rab, which came at the end of 2021, was for the specific reason that this particular force was engaged in extrajudicial killings and egregious violations of human rights. And it is not that the Bangladeshi government was not aware of it. Moreover, the US has said that if the reforms are made, there is no reason to continue the sanctions they have imposed on Rab.

Similarly, with respect to the visa policy, what do we see? Bangladesh was told repeatedly ahead of time that there are issues with respect to the democratic process and fair election. It came on May 24, 2023, but if you look back at 2022, and even 2021, anyone who visited Bangladesh on behalf of the US government had underscored this point. So, with these, of course, there's a strain in the relationship. But it is not irreversible. This is not yet determining all other aspects of the relationship between these two countries. I'm afraid that if this strain continues, the different aspects of the multifaceted relationship between Bangladesh and the US will eventually be hampered.

Free and fair elections in Bangladesh and US visa policy for Bangladeshis

There have been claims of foreign interference, including the US', in Bangladesh's internal matters. What is your perspective on the issue?

Bangladesh is a part of the global community. As partners in various global institutions, even if you don't call them development partners, they have concerns about governance and democracy in Bangladesh. There are strategic and business interests as well. Let us not forget that the government has not abandoned the idea of having a Data Protection Act, which is going to hinder the business interests of the US and other countries. So, do they have a right to express their concerns? Definitely they do. It is not an intervention. The US has not taken a position in favour of any political party whatsoever. Rather, it has said that it just wants to see a free and fair election in Bangladesh. And the Bangladesh government should have a popular mandate; a legitimate one – morally, constitutionally, and politically.

How do you assess Bangladesh's response to the US visa policy?

The Bangladesh government's reaction seems to swing among "yes, it is a great thing," "it is supportive of Prime Minister Hasina's effort to have a fair election," and "we don't care about it." The prime minister's reaction in the New York press conference seems to be exactly the opposite of what her ministers have been saying. Is this a reasonable response to this policy? It seems that they have not made up their mind yet about their official reaction. But if you take it at face value, Bangladesh's ruling party does not seem to be concerned.

Bangladesh should be concerned. This is a clear testimony, an unequivocal statement from the United States, not only through its delegates but through its policy, that they are convinced that a free and fair election might not take place in 2024. The assurance that the government of Bangladesh has given has not convinced them.

Considering that the Bangladesh-US relationship is a multifaceted thing, there is no reason to have a belligerent tone towards the US. Both parties have underscored from time to time that the Bangladesh-US relationship is a friendly relationship. Bangladesh's economic interest aligns with having a better relationship with the United States. Bangladesh's government needs to decide what they are going to do.

Ideally, what should Bangladesh do now?

The US position with respect to a fair election is somewhat a reflection of the aspirations of the Bangladeshi people. The people want to have an election where they can vote, their voices are heard, their opinions matter and they are part of these political processes and the governance. It is not about reacting to US policy or not. It is about ensuring that Bangladeshis do have this opportunity – in fact, this right. History tells us very clearly and unequivocally that present circumstances and the present system of governance would not be able to deliver a free, fair, and inclusive election. So, something must be done, some kind of neutral administration has to be installed so that people have confidence and the opportunity to exercise their constitutional right to vote and express their opinions. That is what matters, that is what is most important. It is far more important than what the US or other countries are saying.

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