Day after Washington raps Bangladesh on elections, city polls take place peacefully

Kamran Reza Chowdhury and Ahammad Foyez
Day after Washington raps Bangladesh on elections, city polls take place peacefully Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) members stand guard outside a polling center during the city corporation election in Gazipur, May 25, 2023.

Updated at 5:16 p.m. ET on 2023-05-25

A day after Washington said it would deny visas to Bangladeshis who tamper with elections, a significant Bangladesh city poll usually beset by rigging and intimidation unfolded peacefully on Thursday with close to 50% voter participation.

Bangladesh’s government reacted to Washington’s newly announced visa policy by saying it was in line with its own commitment to hold free and fair elections.

That response contrasted starkly with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s verbal attack on Washington last month, when she told Parliament that the United States was trying to foist an undemocratic party on her country through the upcoming general election.

Analysts say that the U.S. decision to deny visas to Bangladeshis whom it suspects of trying to undermine democratic elections has rattled many in the South Asian nation.

Asif Nazrul, a professor of law at Dhaka University, wrote on Facebook on Thursday: “The magic of U.S. visa policy has worked in Gazipur.”

The city corporation election in the city just north of Dhaka went off peacefully and drew 49% voter turnout, election officials said. Observers said it was remarkable that goonish behavior or violence did not mar a ruling party-controlled council poll. 

“We are very happy and highly satisfied with the Gazipur City Corporation elections as there was no incident of rigging and violence,” Md. Alamgir, one of the five election commissioners at the Bangladesh Election Commission, told a press conference in Dhaka.

When asked whether the peaceful election in Gazipur was influenced by the United States’ warning on the eve of that vote, he was non-committal. 

“I am not willing to make any comment on it as the EC [Election Commission] is not a part of it,” he said.

Meanwhile, the mother of the former mayor of the city – sacked in 2021 for comments seen as defaming the country's founder – was herself elected mayor as an independent candidate. The candidate, Zaida Khatun, complained in a letter to European diplomats earlier this week that she and her son, Zahangir Alam, had been attacked and intimidated for their political views.

The new visa policy intends to send a message to the citizens of Bangladesh that Washington is closely watching the run-up to upcoming national polls, the U.S. State Department said on Wednesday.

Bangladesh has been governed since 2009 by Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party, which secured three consecutive election wins, including one boycotted by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies in 2014, and one widely criticized as rigged in 2018.

The next general election is scheduled to be held in December 2023 or January 2024.

Voters line up at a polling center at Joydebpur in Gazipur city, Bangladesh, to cast their votes in the city corporation election, May 25, 2023. [BenarNews]

Bangladesh Foreign Minister A. K. Abdul Momen, who met with U.S. envoy Peter Haas on Thursday evening, was upbeat after they discussed the new visa policy.

“Our government is under no pressure and it has nothing to worry about the new policy as it is our commitment to make sure that the elections are held in a free and fair manner,” Momen told reporters after the meeting.

Momen echoed a statement put out by his ministry.

“Bangladesh would like to view this announcement in the broader context of its government’s unequivocal commitment to holding free and fair elections at all levels for upholding the country’s democratic process,” the foreign ministry said.

“However, Bangladesh expects that such [a] visa policy will not be applied arbitrarily in a non-objective manner.”

The ministry added that the government would take measures to prevent and address any unlawful practices or interference in the conduct of the elections.

“The government expects that the local undemocratic forces that resort to violence, arson and destruction would remain cautious and refrain from their misguided efforts to jeopardize the electoral process as mandated by the constitution,” it said.

Washington informed Dhaka about the new visa policy on May 3.

“Under this policy, the United States will be able to restrict the issuance of visas for any Bangladeshi individual, believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh,” top American diplomat Antony Blinken said in a statement Wednesday.

“This includes current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of pro-government and opposition political parties, and members of law enforcement, the judiciary, and security services.”

Opposition welcomes US policy

On Thursday, Haas, the American ambassador, invited representatives of the Awami League, opposition BNP and the Jatiya Party to his residence to explain Washington’s position on the new visa policy for Bangladeshis.

Afterwards, BNP delegation chief Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury said his party welcomed Washington’s move. The BNP was not worried because it was not involved in vote rigging, he said.

“I think this step will at least play a supporting role in holding the next polls in a fair and credible manner,” he said.

A former Bangladesh envoy to the United States, meanwhile, told BenarNews that Washington’s move was clever, because it would have a big impact on affluent and powerful Bangladeshis who interact with the West on a regular basis.

“The impact of the policy of visa restriction is higher than that of imposing sanctions on any individual, as the visa restriction policy is a preventive measure,” Humayun Kabir, the former Bangladesh envoy to the U.S., said.

“So, those who have the will to go to the U.S. or send their children there for education, they should be careful about what they do in the future.”


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