With the election a mere formality, the government’s focus must be on what comes after it

With the passing of the deadline for nomination submissions for Bangladesh's upcoming general election, and the issue of whether we're going to see a competitive election or not (we're not) now terminally settled, the national interest may be better served planning for what comes after January 7th, the day of the vote. Surely there can be some advantages, at least in the near or short term, to knowing the outcome of an election at least four weeks ahead.

It should be easy to recognise that despite all the noises that were made over the last 18 months, nothing will stand in the way of the Awami League forming its fourth successive government, with Sheikh Hasina as prime minister for a 5th time - both extraordinary extraordinary achievements by anyone's standards, anywhere in the world. Leave aside for the moment what it has meant for the democratic process, many of the individual freedoms guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and no less keenly emphasised in our own Constitution.

But then it must be conceded that nowhere in the world is democracy witnessing a zenith, or anything like it. With the omniscient rise of China as a rival superpower to the United States, and Russia more than holding its own in the war against Ukraine that pits many of the forces for and against democracy on either side of the conflict, the pendulum of history may even be swinging back towards old-fashioned authoritarianism. And so for the Awami League and all its supporters, including affiliates like Chhatra League and Jubo League, this unimpeded run in government will unquestionably go down as a golden age, one of unprecedented success. They have already managed, over the course of the three terms since 2009, to reshape the Bangladeshi political and cultural landscape in their image. They will have a chance now for further consolidation. Whatever this means for the country's shrinking civic space, not a single AL supporter would prefer to have it any other way.

That is because what we must now face up to as possibly the biggest obstacle in the way of establishing a vibrant democracy, one of the foundational dreams and overarching principles that led to the country's independence, is the peculiarly dog-eat-dog, zero-sum game that politics has been reduced to here. The democratic triumph witnessed in 1990 (notice how the anniversary on December 6 seems to grow more and more subdued each year) has been completely hollowed out by the sheer propensity of each successive government to ride roughshod over the concept of opposition, while entrenching their own. We can complain all we want about the AL's actions to this end in the period following December 29, 2008, but clearly they will not allow the country to forget what it went through on August 21, 2004.

So now as we proceed through an election schedule that resembles more of a coronation, what must be top of mind for the government is how it plans to deal with what comes after the formalities are completed on January 7th. The most immediate challenge it is likely to face will be in the form of international recognition - that much is clear from events over the past year, or even two years, if you go back to December 10, 2021: the day Washington signalled its renewed interest in what exactly is going on in Bangladesh, by sanctioning the elite paramilitary force RAB, and 7 officers who served in its upper echelons.

Convincing Washington, and the world

It came as a ray of hope for the bedraggled opposition parties, in particular the biggest one among them, the BNP. Subsequent US manoeuvres, especially since the arrival of Ambassador Peter Haas as country's envoy to Bangladesh, served to infuse new life into the BNP, who had appeared rudderless and were for all intents and purposes a spent force by 2021. Ambassador Haas's pointed interventions on behalf of the Biden administration, which took office vowing to make America's fabled championing of democracy a cornerstone of its foreign policy again, understandably fed into hopes that democracy may indeed witness a revival here, starting with getting the broken electoral system back on its feet again.

Ultimately though, the fact that we are about to have another one-sided election, and that US actions failed to convince the BNP that it would be worth their while to enter the race - even with their principal demand of a caretaker regime to oversee elections unmet - can only mean that these actions have failed to hit home. The title of a Bloomberg opinion piece in October, would seem to have captured it succinctly: "Biden's Democracy Crusade Goes Astray in Bangladesh."

The question now becomes: with what consequences? Given how openly and vigorously the incumbent US administration has worked on the Bangladesh file over the past year, surely no one can pretend it's all 'business as usual' once the event, i.e. the election, comes to pass? We shouldn't expect it to.

For one thing, we have the unprecedented visa policy announced in May, specifically designed to deter any actions by almost any individual that can be said to have undermined the electoral process. A subsequent announcement by the State Department in September served notice that it was already being implemented - although strangely, they have refrained from any announcement to confirm that was indeed the case. While it is understood that any individual's visa or visa application status is clearly a private matter that should remain as such, the refusal to even disclose rudimentary information such as how many individuals may have seen their visas revoked or rejected as a result of the policy, has baffled many. Oddly enough, it does disclose the numbers for Nicaragua, one of the countries to which the policy has been applied.

The shroud of secrecy that is inherent to the policy has possibly served to take the sting out of it. But be that as it may. Our friends in Washington are never hesitant to remind us of the fact that they have a variety of 'tools' to achieve any given objective, and one of the most prohibitive, with no secrecy to it at all, is that of trade sanctions. Administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which on its website says, with disarming simplicity: "Sanctions can be either comprehensive or selective, using the blocking of assets and trade restrictions to accomplish foreign policy and national security goals." Currently around 25 countries around the world are subjected to some form of sanction or another, according to information available on the OFAC site.

The possibility of Bangladesh coming under the purview of trade sanctions has always looked remote. It broke through into the discourse only in recent weeks, as for a period the RMG industry workers' movement for a new minimum wage seemed to gel with the opposition parties street protests in early November. Following that, the Biden administration coincidentally rolled out the Presidential Memorandum for Advancing Workers' Rights at Home and Abroad.

Birthing a canard

Under this new policy, the US can choose to impose sanctions, trade penalties and visa restrictions on violators of labour rights globally. In a statement, the US Department of State said they would begin implementing key actions from the presidential memorandum, but did not specify when. It so happened that while announcing the policy, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken mentioned half-an-anecdote centred around Kalpana Akhter, the Bangladeshi labour activist and leader, who has for years been working with the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of trade unions in the United States, as part of their international outreach. The AFL-CIO particularly enjoys a lot of clout within the Democratic Party due to its more leftist leanings (relative to the Republicans), and played the leading role in the revocation of Bangladesh's GSP facility in the US market in 2013, under the previous Democrat administration of President Barack Obama.

The mere mention of Akhter's name, although purely in an anecdotal vein, was enough to set the cat among the pigeons in Bangladesh. The commentariat was up in arms. Akhter became vilified in some sections of the press. The embassy in Washington wrote a letter to principals in Dhaka, citing 'enough reasons for Bangladesh to be alarmed'. Yet on substance, the threat - such as there is one - would seem to carry very little weight or substance. Despite impressions to the contrary in many corners of the globe, the US does tend to weigh any trade sanctions against a nation or industry very, very carefully.

It is also unlikely to take such a step out of spite, as some seem to suggest - a way for Biden to hit back at Bangladesh and its government for not conceding ground over the election question. Or as a way to pile pressure on the AL government, as it has essentially decided 'it wants regime change in Bangladesh'. Although this is a view that has been voiced in parliament by no less a figure than the prime minister herself, it is hard to see too much merit in it. Rather than believing it herself, the prime minister was more likely engaged in trying to use the reality of US pressure on the rebound to score some political points for herself.

For one thing, the US has cried itself hoarse insisting it has no preferred partner in Bangladesh's political arena. Sure, they obviously would say that. But unless one is inclined to equate the principled insistence on a return to good electoral practices, or better ones at least, as covert support for the anti-AL alliance helmed by the BNP, there is really not much to suggest the US would have any reason to prefer one over the other. And despite some of the colourful language used by some AL operatives in recent months in talking about Ambassador Haas in particular (completely ignorance of the fact that he was simply implementing the Biden administration's policy), these are likely to fall by the wayside in international relations.

Having said all that, some limited form of disengagement could well be on the cards following the election, even if only to serve as a stamp of US disapproval. And their actions may be further dissuaded by the fact that the BNP was till the very end opposed to taking part - even under the hawkeye gaze of the US and other nations. On top of that, the BNP's absence may now even pave the way for a relatively clean vote, with virtually all the really competitive races seeing AL nominees squaring off against independent/'dummy candidates who also swear allegiance to AL. Not that it tends to be any less cut-throat - for evidence, just look to the last few local government elections.

Eminent economist Dr Wahiduddin Mahmud said this week that 'any trade sanctions' would have to be regarded as a 'big deal' from the Bangladesh perspective - even if it 's restricted to a single industry or product. And particularly if that product tends to make 85% of your export earnings. But we are getting ahead of ourselves - as some have rightly pointed out, American businesses will not be keen on losing such a cheap sourcing destination. Add to that the fact that although their workers still remain the worst paid in the world (which is affected by demand and supply of labour too in a country of over 160 million people), BGMEA can point to a pretty hefty hike of 56 percent - in and of itself - in the minimum wage that was announced for this sector last month. To go along with other improvements in the way they do business.

'It's the PM wot won it'

The most optimistic outlook on the relationship with Washington has come, perhaps not surprisingly, from the foreign minister. Talking to reporters after offering prayers at the Hazrat Shahjalal shrine in Sylhet recently, AK Abdul Momen said that the United States would support the Bangladesh government 'after the elections'. Which comes off as rather contrarian, but thankfully he did provide his reasoning.

"America is a very pragmatic government. America was not with us in 1971, but after achieving victory, it supported us for United Nations membership. We hope they will continue supporting Bangladesh after forming the government, as they have in the past," he said. It is possible.

All in all, despite all the perceived pressure from its international partners, the government has probably been able to build enough absorption capacity around itself to be able to withstand whatever comes its way. It has done so by weaning itself of the dependence on Western aid that was such a feature of Bangladesh in its first three decades at least. Today, the amount of aid it receives as a percentage of its GDP is miniscule. It has also pursued tireless diplomacy to this same end.

Witness the number of countries Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has visited in the last 6 months to a year, and the number of important meetings with her fellow world leaders she has held. They have been crucial to putting in place the rudiments of future alliances. Her outreach to the Gulf has met with stupendous success, especially when viewed in the context of how these countries were traditionally aligned in Bangladesh politics. Quite possibly, when historians look back on this period, that weekend or 4 days in September, where the government pulled off that Lavrov-Macron double-punch to sandwich an almost star-turn for Sheikh Hasina at the G20 Summit, will be seen as the turning p[oint, when the incumbents gained the momentum back. That same momentum is now set to propel them to uncharted territory for any political party in Bangladesh - an unprecedented fourth consecutive term in office. Whatever the challenges that lie ahead, the onus will be be, as ever, on Sheikh Hasina to get them through it.

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