US visa sanctions: An election game changer?

The new threats of visa sanctions could well make a free and fair election more likely in Bangladesh.

US visa sanctions: An election game changer?
Montage of press statement issued by the US State Department

As an outlier among Bangladesh’s commentariat, I continue to think a free and fair election at the end of 2023 could well result in a victory for the Awami League. Yes, the government is repressive, yes there are serious restrictions to freedom to speech and yes existing endemic corruption has worsened under this government. However, at the same time, the Awami League has created stability, economic progress and some significant infrastructure projects.

It is also highly uncertain whether a majority are going to bet on the idea that the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party will be the better alternative following their previous woeful 2001-6 term in government. So for me, it remains a toss up between the two parties as to who would win a free and fair election - if of course there was one.

However, for the Awami League, a toss up is simply not good enough odds. It sees itself as the only legitimate governing party in the country and wants to be certain that it wins. So as it looks towards the coming elections, while it surely does not intend to rig the vote quite as systemically as it did in 2018 (resulting in it winning 293 out of 300 seats), it surely intends to rig enough so that it can be sure of victory.

In some countries, where the governing party seeks to win elections through illegal means, there are institutions able to act as a counter-balance, but that is not the case in Bangladesh. The Awami League has effectively all institutions under its control — including the media, judiciary, police, election commission — and so there is little that can be done within the country to stop the election being stolen. This is why, one year ago, I wrote an article titled, “In the hands of the international community” which argued that “Free and fair elections in Bangladesh will depend on the extent of pressure exerted by the democratic West.”

It is in that context that one needs to consider the recent US State Department's new visa policy, announced on Wednesday, which is designed to “Promote democratic elections in Bangladesh.” It states:

“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.”

It goes onto point out that “undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh” is not just about on-the-day rigging, but includes an extensive list of wider democratic practices, including:

“voter intimidation, the use of violence to prevent people from exercising their right to freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, and the use of measures designed to prevent political parties, voters, civil society, or the media from disseminating their views.”

This is, without doubt, a very positive step, seeking to inhibit not just inappropriate conduct on the government's side, but also on the part of opposition parties which (when in government) were just as keen then, as the Awami League is now, to rig elections.

It is also strategically clever. Clearly it is embarrassing for the Bangladesh government to be subject to this kind of policy — as it clearly shows the US government does not trust it to ensure free and fair elections, but at the same time it is difficult for the Awami League government to be too critical, since the prime minister has herself been so insistent that she is in favour of free and fair elections.

Indeed, both these aspects were evident in a leaked confidential communication written earlier this month by Bangladesh’s ambassador in Washington  after he was told by US government officials about the new policy.

“After listening to my distinguished guests, I strongly expressed that such an announcement and subsequent action on the part of the government may seriously undermine the strength of our bilateral relationship,” the ambassador wrote to his foreign ministry colleagues. Yet in the same communication, the ambassador quotes the US state department officials as telling him that their Government was taking this policy “to support the Hon’ble Prime Minister’s commitment to hold the upcoming election in Bangladesh a free and fair one.”

Caught in this trap, the Bangladesh government has publicly taken the high ground. “Bangladesh would like to view [the restrictions] 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 country's foreign ministry stated on Thursday in its press release.

It is difficult to say whether threats of visa sanctions are in themselves enough to change the calculus of those who would otherwise be involved in “undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh”. It depends in part on how much the police, civil servants, Awami League supporters etc. might be concerned that they and their families will not be able to travel to the United States — as well as the possible reputational damage they could suffer if bans are publicised. It also turns on how much the Awami League government seeks to reign them in to avoid the bad publicity they would suffer from sanctions imposed on a wide range of people..

The US Magnitsky sanctions imposed on the country's Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and its officers in December 2021 certainly did result in an immediate reduction in disappearances and extrajudicial killings, as law enforcement authorities and politicians thought twice about exercising this abuse of power. So this would certainly suggest that threats of sanctions (though these new ones do not impact upon financial assets) can act as an effective lever in Bangladesh.

Indeed one can see how the new threat of sanctions may well have quite an immediate effect on the pre-election atmosphere: law enforcement authorities may, for example, be far less willing to stop opposition parties from holding protests and rallies, something which they have regularly done in the recent past.

At present, this is the US going it alone. What is more certain, is that this new policy is much more likely to be an election game changer if other countries come on board with similarly designed sanction policies (within their own legislative systems) to exert pressure on the Awami League government●