Will the new U.S. visa policy for Bangladesh achieve its objectives?

By Syed Badiuzzaman

The U.S. State Department recently announced a new visa policy for Bangladesh to promote free, fair and democratic elections and hold any individual — regardless of his or her power and position – who hinders such elections accountable. But will this policy succeed in achieving its objectives?

As announced by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on May 24, “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. 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.”

Since the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, no U.S. administration ever announced any visa policy against any Bangladeshi citizen for undermining free and fair elections. Against this backdrop, the new visa policy for Bangladesh is significant. This means the Biden administration will not watch elections in Bangladesh just casually anymore as in the past. It will closely monitor the next election in the moderate Muslim country in South Asia bordering India and Myanmar.

Why this change of heart about elections in Bangladesh now? The ruling Awami League came to power after a fair election in 2008 held under a nonpartisan caretaker government headed by Princeton-educated economist Fakhruddin Ahmed. Then this party abolished the caretaker government system through a constitutional amendment and organized two more elections itself in 2014 and 2018. But both elections were anything but free and fair. In 2014, 153 members of the 300-seat parliament were elected without any contest as major opposition parties boycotted the poll. The 2018 election was also reported by local media as heavily rigged in favor of the ruling party.

As two back-to-back elections failed to reflect the will of the majority, Bangladesh experienced a democratic backsliding. Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) downgraded Bangladesh from democracy to a “hybrid regime” for electoral frauds. On recent indexes of Freedom House, a U.S.-based democracy watchdog, Bangladesh was repeatedly put into the category of “partly free” for “the ruling Awami League’s consolidation of political power through sustained harassment of the opposition and those perceived to be allied with it, as well as of critical media and voices in civil society.”

However, during the last 14 years Bangladesh made spectacular progress in the economic field under the Awami League-led government. This country is currently the 35th largest economy in the world with a GDP size of $460.8 billion. Bangladesh’s country profile will significantly change when it graduates from its least developed status to a developing nation in 2026. Recently, Bangladesh constructed its longest bridge spending $3.6 billion from its own resources and the nation’s capital is coming under a network of rapid transit system called “Dhaka Metro” like other modern cities in the region.

So, Awami League leaders including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina often brag that there is no alternative to their leadership. They claim that theirs is the only political party that can guarantee prosperity to the Bangladeshi people. Bangladesh’s gross national per capita income increased to $2,793 in 2022. So, they insist that for the uninterrupted economic development of Bangladesh they must stay in power. And they seem determined to continue for the fourth straight term starting next year.

But the Biden administration has taken note of Bangladesh’s deviation from the path of democracy due to one after another undemocratic and rigged elections. Accordingly, Bangladesh was excluded from Joe Biden’s both global “Summits for Democracy” in 2021 and 2023 even though several other South Asian countries including India and the military-backed Pakistan were invited. And now the U.S. government has come up with a new visa policy to fix democracy in Bangladesh.

However, this policy met with mixed reactions. While the opposition parties have hailed it, the government is apparently quite upset. Many neutral Bangladeshis are also seeing it as an insult to Bangladesh. “They [U.S. government] have linked the issue of the new visa policy with holding a free, fair and democratic election in Bangladesh. As a citizen, I think it is very insulting to us,” said Professor Mustafizur Rahman, a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a leading think tank in Dhaka.

Like him, many other people also feel that by attaching its new visa policy to holding of a free and fair election in Bangladesh, the United States is interfering in the internal affairs of the country. They say that the election in Bangladesh is its domestic affair and no foreign country has any right to interfere. However, these people have their opponents too. And they have a totally different view on the issue. They say that for a free and fair election in the country, there must be strong foreign pressure especially from the United States and the European Union.

So, the fate of the next general election in Bangladesh is hanging in the balance. While Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has said the upcoming national election will be held in a timely manner as per the constitution, opposition leader Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir has reiterated that they will not take part in the election under the present government. So, both parties are at loggerheads over the mechanism of holding the next poll in Bangladesh. While the government insists that the election must be held under it, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition which has no faith in the government and its election commission, demands a neutral caretaker government to conduct the poll.

However, the reintroduction of the caretaker government system for holding a free, fair and participatory election will require constitutional amendments. But the ruling Awami League party is adamant not to go that route ever again. “The caretaker government is a dead issue. No matter how much the opposition leaders shout for it, the dead system will never return,” insists Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader. If he seriously means what he says, then there is barely any scope for a free, fair and participatory election in Bangladesh next year. And if the biggest opposition political party boycotts the election again, it will be neither participatory nor democratic.

While the Awami League-led government is facing a major challenge of holding a free, fair and democratic election next year as demanded by the United States, it has strong support from Russia, China and neighboring India. A couple of weeks after the announcement of the new U.S. visa policy, Aleksandr Mantytsky, the Russian ambassador to Bangladesh, said Russia will not interfere in the Bangladesh election as his country believes in the policy of non-interference. “There is a wise leadership in place in Bangladesh and we don’t comment on your country’s internal affairs,” he told journalists in Chittagong, the second biggest city of the country. So, the Russian position is different from America’s with regard to Bangladesh elections.

Meanwhile, at a regular press briefing in Beijing on June 14, Wang Wenbin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson was asked by a journalist to respond to a comment of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina about U.S. sanctions on her country and this was his response: “While turning a blind eye to its own racial discrimination, gun violence, drug proliferation and other domestic problems, a certain country has long been interfering in the internal affairs of Bangladesh and many other developing countries under the pretext of democracy and human rights.” So, the current leadership of Bangladesh also has the support of the Chinese government.

And there is no denying the fact that India has been the most trusted and traditional friend of the ruling Awami League for the last 52 years and beyond. Since Sheikh Hasina’s government came to power in 2009, Bangladesh-India relations significantly improved. The people-to-people relations between the two countries are also excellent. So, India will naturally feel comfortable if the ruling Awami League continues to stay in power.

While the Awami League-led government insists that the next election must be held under it like the last two polls, the main opposition party BNP says it will participate in the election only under a nonpartisan caretaker government. If BNP stays out of the election again, it will be neither participatory nor democratic. So, no one knows how the new U.S. visa policy will achieve its objectives of promoting democratic elections in Bangladesh.

Syed Badiuzzaman is a Bangladeshi-Canadian journalist.

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Foreign Policy News is a self-financed initiative providing a venue and forum for political analysts and experts to disseminate analysis of major political and business-related events in the world, shed light on particulars of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of foreign media and present alternative overview on current events affecting the international relations.

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