Bangladesh’s government has consistently reiterated its commitment to holding a “free, fair, and peaceful” election, with the next national election…
Michael Kugelman, the Director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., has voiced concerns that if the BNP opts to abstain from national elections, it could potentially create complexities in the United States’ ability to make a ‘conclusive judgment’ of the election outcomes in Bangladesh. Kugelman explained this perspective during an interview with UNB, highlighting the challenge posed by a scenario where the Awami League faces no significant competition and secures an overwhelmingly high percentage of the vote. In such a case, attributing the votes to or from the BNP becomes unclear, contributing to an unsettled situation.
He emphasized that the Biden administration’s ultimate goal is to ensure a free and fair election in Bangladesh while maintaining a positive and constructive relationship with the country. Bangladesh’s government has consistently reiterated its commitment to holding a “free, fair, and peaceful” election, with the next national election expected to take place in December this year or January next.
Kugelman also underscored another potential scenario, wherein if the US determines that the election is rigged rather than free and fair, it might prompt a review of future relations between the US and Bangladesh. He noted that the Biden administration’s recent actions, such as changes in visa policies and sanctions on RAB, aim to emphasize the importance of ensuring a free and fair election to the ruling party. The objective is to prevent the need for the administration to make decisions regarding the future of the bilateral relationship.
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Kugelman’s insights on the upcoming elections and US-Bangladesh relations
Currently in Dhaka on his inaugural tour, Kugelman stressed that the US administration is conveying its preference for continued and robust engagement with Dhaka. He acknowledged that while the possibility of reduced ties cannot be ruled out, it may not necessarily occur, but it remains a plausible outcome.
Kugelman admitted that he lacks a comprehensive understanding of the situation on the ground, but he expressed a strong likelihood that the election results might face contestation. When asked about the political landscape leading up to the elections, Kugelman, who is also a contributor to Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief, described it as an unsettled and uncertain period. There are significant uncertainties regarding the election’s outcome, including whether the opposition will participate or boycott, adding to the prevailing ambiguity.
He observed parallels between the political polarization in Bangladesh and that witnessed in many countries globally, including the United States. This polarization, he noted, represents a common trend in contemporary politics.
For Kugelman, the pivotal question revolves around whether the opposition will choose to boycott the election, as this decision could fundamentally alter the election’s dynamics. He emphasized that this juncture holds considerable significance for both Bangladesh and the US-Bangladesh relationship.
Kugelman emphasized that the election’s outcome and its perception could carry significant implications for US-Bangladesh relations. Regarding public perception that the US is favoring the BNP, he clarified that it’s not about favoring a particular party but about the Biden administration’s commitment to advancing its values-based foreign policy. This policy focuses on promoting democracy and human rights in Bangladesh and is selectively applied, with Bangladesh serving as a test case. The emphasis is on policies and concerns related to rights and democracy, transcending party politics.
Navigating turbulent spot
Addressing a query, the expert highlighted Bangladesh’s complex predicament, characterized by both immediate and enduring challenges, encompassing political, geopolitical, and environmental dimensions. In the short term, Bangladesh grapples with political uncertainties and geopolitical complexities amid ongoing great power competitions in the region.
However, he emphasized that looking ahead, Bangladesh confronts prolonged challenges, particularly in the realm of climate change. He underscored the urgency of acknowledging climate change as an imminent issue rather than relegating it to a distant concern, asserting that its impact is already being felt.
Kugelman noted that Bangladesh is currently addressing immediate challenges encompassing political issues, geopolitics, and economic matters. While terrorism risks have become less alarming than in previous years, he cautioned against complacency, as the potential for future militant threats cannot be discounted.
He emphasized the need for a balanced approach, one that addresses immediate concerns while also allocating policy resources to tackle the enduring challenges on the horizon.
Escalating geopolitical competitions
Responding to inquiries regarding Bangladesh’s relationships with major global powers, Kugelman highlighted the intensifying geopolitical rivalries in the region. He emphasized that Bangladesh has, in essence, become a contested arena for three of these rivalries: India-China, US-China, and US-Russia. Consequently, managing relations with all four of these countries is poised to become increasingly challenging for Dhaka.
Discussing Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific Outlook, Kugelman noted that it appears to prioritize principles, preferences, and priorities that align with elements found in both the US Indo-Pacific policy and China’s foreign policy principles. He suggested that this approach reflects an effort by Bangladesh to strike a balance in its relations with the US and China.
Kugelman also commended the decision to refer to it as an “outlook” rather than a “strategy.” He interpreted this choice as a deliberate signal to both Beijing and Moscow, indicating that the Indo-Pacific document is not an endorsement of the US Indo-Pacific strategy but a more informal expression of Bangladesh’s perspectives and objectives in the region.
BRICS expansion and its potential impact on Bangladesh
Kugelman believes that Bangladesh could have benefited significantly from BRICS membership in terms of asserting its global relevance. However, he also recognizes that BRICS has faced challenges in achieving its objectives and may be viewed by the West as an anti-Western bloc due to Iran’s inclusion. He suggests that, while it may not be detrimental for Bangladesh to miss out on membership at this time, there could be future opportunities for inclusion.
He points out that Bangladesh stands as a strong candidate for BRICS admission, being a major emerging economy and an Asian nation. Kugelman is surprised that none of the six new BRICS members hail from Asia. Additionally, he notes that existing BRICS members, including China and India, have no objections to Bangladesh’s potential membership.
Addressing economic concerns, Kugelman acknowledges Bangladesh’s robust economy but expresses long-term worries. The country has long relied heavily on garment exports and textiles, necessitating a diversification of its primary export sources to compete with larger economic powerhouses in the future.