by David Bergman
Western countries will not support elections without the participation of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party unless the party turned down a ‘reasonable’ offer to end the current political stalemate, senior diplomats from major Western embassies in Bangladesh have told Bangladesh Politico.
‘If the Awami League government comes up with a reasonable proposal on the composition of an election government, and the BNP does not agree with it, we would not want to endorse such a boycott,’ said one diplomat, who like all the others spoke openly on condition that the identity of their respective embassies remained undisclosed.
‘But if the government is not serious and does not negotiate in good faith, then there is likely to be a decision not to send election observers,’ he added.
Another diplomat said, ‘If the BNP withdraws on reasonable grounds, there is a strong balance of probability that observer missions will not deploy.’
The senior diplomats, belonging to five different embassies, were speaking as the first tentative steps were being made by the two major parties to start a dialogue about accommodating each other’s demands on the nature of the government that will organize the country’s national elections due to take place by 24 January 2014.
Another said: ‘If the Prime minister continued to have power, she can manipulate the administration to the support the Awami League’
However, at the same time, the diplomats are of the view that if the government did try to manipulate the election on the scale that opinion polls now suggest would be necessary to obtain an Awami League win, it would be detected.
‘We have told the BNP that they have to have trust in us,’ one of the embassy officials said. ‘If there is daylight robbery of the election, if the AL tries to cook the books, we will call it.’
The diplomats are in particular putting their trust in an exercise of election observation being undertaken by the international non-government organization Democracy International.
By monitoring thousands of polling centres chosen randomly round the country the organisation will be able to determine whether the results announced by the election commission in each of the constituencies reflected the votes counted at the polling station levels.
‘If we say that we will discover a cooked election, then we have to mean it. Our credibility within Bangladesh and the rest of the world is on the line here,’ the same diplomat said.
He also pointed to the importance of the recent polling.
‘Remember, if the election polls continue to show before the election that the BNP is leading, and the election commission announces radically different results, we will clearly know that something is wrong,’ he added.
The diplomats emphasized that they were trying to deal with each party equally, explaining to each of them that they both had much to lose by not coming to an accommodation.
‘We want the AL to realize that they should not take international observers for granted, and for the BNP to realize that we will not necessarily remove observers if there is a boycott,’ one of the European diplomats said.
Another diplomat pointed out that the BNP should understand that it cannot ‘overplay its hand’ pointing out that in 2008, when the BNP were calling for the election to be delayed that the party were then told, ‘you can do what you want, but the elections will go ahead and we will say that the process is legitimate.’
‘If the BNP overplay their hand this time, then we might say to them that you are being stubborn and that we will go ahead and monitor the elections.’
As to what would be considered ‘objectively reasonable grounds’ that would justify the BNP withdrawing from the election, the diplomats were not clear.
‘We will know it when we see it,’ one of the non-European ambassadors said.
‘We will need to see what is the quality of the offer made by the Awami League’ another diplomat stated.
However, a number of the diplomats suggested that it would at the minimum have to involve Sheikh Hasina giving away her powers as prime minister. ‘It would have to be closer to BNP’s current position than the AL’s,’ one ambassador said.
The diplomats told Bangladesh Politico that they were uncertain whether Awami League was listening to what they had to say, with one of the embassy officials saying that it appeared that the prime minister seemed to think that internal BNP dynamics would force Khaleda Zia to take part in the election without her having to make any political accommodation.
‘We have told the Awami League, that it should not take this for granted,’ this diplomat said.
The diplomats were aware that if they did not send observers to an election without BNP participation, the AL might think it could get away with inflating the voter turnout to provide the election the appearance of greater credibility.
‘What happens, lets just say speculatively, if the election results came out as 221 seats for the AL and 79 seats for the Jatiya party, and the government says that it was on a 65 percent turnout. If there was no observers, no parallel vote tabulation, how can we possibly say whether the figures are accurate or not?’ one diplomat asked, recognizing that the decision to pull the observers will create its own difficulties.
However, the diplomats were unanimously of the view that even if India and Russia were to support the Awami League if the party tried to push a ahead with elections without the rest of the international community’s support, the post-election government would not be sustainable.
‘If a vast amount of the international community does not accept the elections, Awami League could not solider on without any fig leaf of a mandate’, one senior embassy official said.
But the diplomats were keen to warn the BNP that it should not assume that ‘1996 would happen again’ – which was when the tables were turned and the AL, then in opposition, boycotted the election and were able to force a second election under a neutral government which they then won.
It may just as easily result, the diplomats warned, in the army coming to power. ‘And where would that leave the BNP,’ one diplomat said.
‘There is of course the old adage, that both of the ladies would prefer the army than the other one in power,’ the official chuckled, referring to Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, the leaders of the two parties.