Bangladesh says foreign election observers welcome, rejects US criticism

Supporters of the ruling Bangladesh Awami League take part in an election campaign rally during the general election campaign in Dhaka. (AFP pic)

DHAKA: Bangladesh said on Sunday it had approved 175 foreign observers for next weekend’s national election, dismissing US criticism for failing to secure accreditation for a US-funded monitor.

Past elections have been chaotic and sometimes violent. International observers shunned the last vote in 2014 that was boycotted by the main opposition party as there was no caretaker administration to oversee the process.

The US State Department said on Friday it was disappointed by Bangladesh’s “inability to grant credentials and issue visas within the timeframe necessary” for the majority of international election monitors from the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), which is funded by the U.S. government.

ANFREL, which has operated in 57 election observation missions across Asia since 1997, said it had terminated its observer mission on Saturday due to “significant delays in the accreditation approval by the Bangladesh Election Commission and visa approvals by the (foreign ministry)”.

“With ANFREL’s withdrawal, the organisation registers its doubts regarding the integrity of the elections, especially with the reports on civil society restrictions and arrest of numerous opposition members,” it said on its website on Sunday.

Bangladesh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said ANFREL cancelled its observation mission itself while the approval process was underway, adding it was “disheartened” by the State Department’s statement.

It said it welcomed international monitors for next Sunday’s election that would be held in a “festive atmosphere”.

“As of now, 175 foreign election observers from different countries and organisations have been accredited to undertake election monitoring missions,” the ministry said. It gave no details which countries the monitors would come from.

The Election Commission could not immediately be reached for comment outside regular business hours.

Activists and supporters of the two main parties, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), regularly engage in violence around elections in the country of 165 million people, sometimes disrupting its multi-billion-dollar garments industry.

Apart from the foreign observers, the Election Commission had registered 118 local bodies to monitor the polls, the ministry said.

Tens of thousands of armed forces personnel will from Monday fan out across the country to support police as preparations for the vote heats up, a move that has cheered the opposition front that includes the BNP, who envisage greater protection for them.

“We hope that this deployment will create a congenial electoral environment which was not existing before. Armed forces must create a level playing field for all parties and play a positive role,” said Kamal Hossain, the convener of National Unity Front, part of the opposition grouping.