Bangladesh’s recent parliamentary elections, which cemented the control of the ruling Awami League (AL) of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, have received a cool reception in the United States and Europe. The U.S. State Department, in its post-election statement, declined to call the elections “free and fair” and lamented the failure of Bangladesh’s main opposition party (the Bangladesh National Party or BNP) to participate.
As a nongovernmental observer who witnessed the elections at the invitation of the Bangladesh Election Commission, I came to an opposite conclusion from the State Department based on the over fifty polling sites our multinational team of independent observers visited and the hundreds of voters we spoke with. As our team stated following the election in Dhaka, based solely on our personal observations and referring only to the processes and procedures surrounding the voting itself, we judged the election to be largely free and fair and absent the widespread violence that has accompanied previous elections in Bangladesh.
Importantly, this conclusion was made irrespective of the decision of the principal opposition party, the BNP, to boycott the election. The participation of the BNP would have provided considerable legitimacy for Bangladesh’s democratic process. However, the BNP’s decision to boycott is an internal political matter that should not detract from the general success of the Election Commission, which acted as a quasi-caretaker government in advance of the election. Notably, rural turnout and the participation of female voters appeared strong.
As in all democracies, developing and developed alike, Bangladesh’s election procedures have room for improvement. Relatively limited voting hours artificially deflate turnout. The decision to declare a public holiday on Election Day, creating a three-day weekend, encouraged many voters in Dhaka to make plans that did not include voting. Infrastructure constraints and economic disparities remain a challenge. And limited instances of violence, although much reduced from past elections, were reported outside of Dhaka. Bangladesh’s young democracy continues to evolve, both in how it conducts elections and its broader democratic institutions.
Those institutions continue to struggle under the perception of the Awami League’s indifference to the rule of law. While outside the remit of the international observers charged with examining the election’s processes and procedures, AL’s jailing of political opponents prior to the election furthered the appearance of democratic backsliding. For the strong electoral institutions established under the current government to have legitimacy, the broader set of democratic norms and practices befitting a healthy democracy must be nurtured and grown.
Finally, beyond simply one election, the United States must not lose sight of Bangladesh’s strategic importance while also encouraging its democratic evolution. China has shown considerable interest in economic and military investments in Bangladesh, including helping construct a submarine base, which could resupply its own submarines. Beijing’s interest in Bangladesh is a direct threat to America’s Quad partner India, which is fending off China’s attempts at similar arrangements in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The United States has a vested strategic interest in ensuring the security of India’s flanks and the ability of U.S. naval and international commercial traffic to safely traverse the Indian Ocean without potential interference from China’s burgeoning undersea capabilities.
Too often, the U.S. has allowed its strategic interests to be subsumed by concerns, even if understandable, about internal governance. Whether in Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Fiji, or now Bangladesh, the United States cannot simply walk away from key strategic relationships in response to governance problems. History shows that not only do such American abdications rarely improve the domestic politics of the country in question, but they also always allow America’s geopolitical competitors greater space to operate, harming U.S. strategic interests while exerting far less influence on positive governance reforms than an engaged America could.
As the dust settles on Bangladesh’s elections, Washington must maintain active engagement with a key South Asian partner that matters immensely to the United States’ long-term interests in the Indo-Pacific.
Alexander B. Gray, a Senior Fellow in National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, served as Deputy Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff of the White House National Security Council (NSC) (2019-21) and as NSC Director for Oceania & Indo-Pacific Security (2018-19). He served as a nongovernmental election observer for Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections in January 2024.