Sun, Dec 02, 2018 - Page 4 News List

US to send observers to Bangladesh polls

OPPOSITION CONCERNS:The Bangladeshi president’s rival, Khaleda Zia, is in prison on charges, as well as scores of workers for the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party

Reuters, DHAKA

The US plans to send 12 teams of observers and fund thousands of domestic observers to monitor an election in Bangladesh that it hopes would be free and fair, a senior official at the US embassy in Dhaka said.

Amid opposition concerns about rigging in the Dec. 30 general election, there has been speculation about US plans for it, especially after the EU this week said it would not send observers, nor comment on the vote or result.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is seeking a third straight term.

Her old rival, Khaleda Zia, who leads the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), is in jail after being convicted on charges that she has said were politically motivated.

Scores of BNP workers have also been detained.

The BNP boycotted the last election, in 2014, as unfair, but has said it would participate this time, although it is seeking international monitors of polls that it has said it believes would be flawed.

The US is sending a dozen teams, each of about two observers, who would fan out to most parts of the country, said William Moeller, political officer at the US embassy in Dhaka.

“The Bangladesh government has emphasized that it plans to hold a free and fair election,” Moeller said this week. “We welcome that and are providing funding for election observers who hope to see such an outcome.”

Moeller referred to reports of harassment and intimidation before recent city corporation elections, which he said could have suppressed voter turnout.

“We raised these concerns at the time, so we are hoping that we won’t see the same issues in the national elections,” he said.

The National Democratic Institute, a US-based non-profit, said after an assessment in October that the polls would be held “amid a high degree of political polarization, heightened tensions and shrinking political space.”

The Bangkok-based Asian Network for Free Elections is to send a team of about 30 short and long-term observers, Moeller said.

About 15,000 Bangladeshi observers are to be funded by the US Agency for International Development, the British Department for International Development and the Swiss government, he said.

The domestic observers would spread out, but might not be able to reach every polling station, he said.

Hasina and Khaleda have alternated in power over the past 28 years. Elections in Bangladesh are often violent and marred by ballot-stuffing and voter intimidation.

Hasina’s Bangladesh Awami League has held power since 2009 and dispensed from 2014 the practice of letting a neutral caretaker government oversee elections, to the anger of the BNP.

The government has brushed off opposition fears of rigging.

“I don’t see any possibility this time, because all the parties are participating, and all of them will have their election agents,” said H.T. Imam, a political adviser to Hasina.

Bangladesh has seen steady economic growth under Hasina and the development of a vibrant garment sector under-pinning export growth, accounting for 80 percent of the economy, but rights groups have criticized increasing curbs on freedom of speech and the media.

Hoping to capitalize on dissatisfaction, the BNP has formed an alliance with smaller parties called the National Unity Front and Hasina said this week that she expected competitive polls.

The EU delegation in Dhaka said it was not sending observers, because of growing demand for them amid tight resources.

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