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• Bangladesh Elections: Slide Toward Authoritarianism? • United States to Withdraw from Syria & Afghanistan

BY SHASHI MALLA

Bangladesh’s Landslide Election
The Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League (AL) delivered a devastating defeat to the opposition National Unity Front (NUF) in the recent Bangladesh parliamentary election. Having won a phenomenal 288 out of 300 seats in the directly contested unicameral parliament, Hasina is set to govern for a record third consecutive term.
Controversy upon controversy has followed Hasina’s unbelievable electoral triumph. The NUF leader and former AL stalwart , 82-year old eminent jurist Kamal Hussian – Oxford educated father of the Bangladeshi constitution and comrade-in-arms of the state’s founder Mujibir Rahman – has termed the election “farcical” and demanded the results be annulled and a fresh general election be held under a neutral caretaker government – as was the practice in previous times.
Allegations of large-scale rigging, harassment and intimidation of both opposition candidates and voters, as well as, arbitrary arrests and suppression of dissent have been directed against the ruling Al-government. However, incidents of violence in elections is the norm in South Asia, although the landslide victory was extraordinary and exceptional comparable to the election victory of the Nepalese Communists a year back.
Even before election day, many observers had concluded that the polls, conducted under the country’s increasingly authoritarian conditions, would be a manipulated affair. It became clear even before voting that the ruling Awami League party was tilting the election process in its favour using coercive methods. Thus, news coverage, reports from human rights organizations, confidential AL-party documents leaked by journalists, and even unusually candid public pronouncements by Al-party members, some of which went viral on social media in advance of the election, “revealed the government’s elaborate plans for voter suppression, aggressive policing, systemic arrests and detentions of opposition activists – all with the singular objective of managing the election in the ruling party’s favour” (Al Jazeera).
There is no credible independent political polling process in Bangladesh. However, analysts could review spontaneous public engagements in political processions, analyse social media sentiment and utilize online polling as tangible methods to gauge popular support for political parties. This may not have been fully empirical or rigorous, but these processes did show that “there was [an] underpinning momentum towards voting for the country’s major opposition alliance during this election cycle” (Al Jazeera).
The election results were outrageous and demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that the ruling Awami League had overshot its mark. Thanks to the government’s elaborate machinery, the AL and its alliance ended up winning 288 seats, leaving just seven seats for the “Jatiya Oikko Front”, the major opposition alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). There were many constituencies where the AL won a stunning 99.9 percent of the votes! And hardly any AL candidate lost their contests. Thus, the Awami League has captured the state and its mission is to maintain the status quo.
The international reaction to allegations of irregularities was not clear initially, but the scenario quickly calmed down after India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi paved the way by congratulating Hasina for her massive victory. China followed soon after. Saudi Arabia, Russia, Qatar, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Bhutan and Pakistan followed in quick succession with their felicitations. The United States and the European Union stressed that they wanted to continue to cooperate with the new government – a badge of legitimacy. The UN “would be happy” to see Hasina at the helm.
Thus, a tainted victory did not preclude continued cooperation from the international community!
US Withdrawal from Syria/Afghanistan
US President Donald Trump first unilaterally decided to cut US troop levels in Syria and Afghanistan late last year. This seemed clear-cut. The 2,000 US military personnel in eastern Syria, who with Kurdish and Arab allies had been fighting the Islamic State (IS), would be departing within 30 days. In the meantime, the Pentagon would prepare a plan to withdraw about half of the 14,000-plus US troops in Afghanistan.
But Trump’s intentions were neither transparent nor well-defined. Some of his officials told reporters that the Syria departure would be extended over 120 days. One of Trump’s major supporters, Republican Senator Lindsey O. Graham, after meeting the president, said that there may be no firm timetable for withdrawal at all, since “the President will make sure that any withdrawal from Syria will…ensure” that the Islamic State is “permanently destroyed,” Iran does not gain an advantage and “our Kurdish allies are protected.” This would, of course, require more than 120 days.
However, last week in a complete lack of coordination and consultation, Trump again managed to confuse the situation. He falsely claimed that he had never said that the troop withdrawal from Syria would be fast, and at the same time, rejected the 120-time-table, contradicting his own officials. He was also at variance with Senator Graham on Iran’s role in Suria, saying “They can do whatever they want.”
Trump’s plans in Afghanistan are even more obscure, fully confusing his officials. Despite ordering the evacuation, he has not elaborated on his policy and the US military commanders in Afghanistan have not received any fresh orders. In 2017, Trump had agreed to increase the US presence by 4,000 at the urging of then defence secretary General Jim Mattis in order to goad the militant Taliban towards a negotiated settlement of the 17-year-old conflict – America’s ‘everlasting war’.
In the meantime, talks between the special US envoy and Taliban representatives have since taken place, raising hopes for an agreement. However, it is inexplicable why Trump has ordered a withdrawal now, before any progress has been reached , and while the Afghan government forces are struggling to deter the Taliban from advancing.
Considering the dismal state of affairs in that West Asian country, the American strategic thinker Robert D. Kaplan has argued in “The New York Times” that it may soon be high noon for the US to get out of the country altogether. He writes that the US is spending beyond its means on a mission that is only helping its strategic rivals. Afghanistan symbolizes the decline of American power, and Washington has finally to accept that “there is virtually no possibility of a military victory over the Taliban and little chance of leaving behind a self-sustaining democracy.” The US is incurring horrendous costs only “to prop up an unstable government that would most likely disintegrate if aid were to end.”
According to Kaplan, Afghanistan represents the triumph of the deterministic forces of geography, history, culture, and ethnic and sectarian identity, with the competing ethnic groups of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras and others competing for their own areas of land. Additionally, tribes, warlords and mafia-style networks that control the drug trade hold sway over large swathes of the country. However, he does not support an abrupt withdrawal as it would project a new symbol of the decline of American power. In the face of a chaotic, understaffed and incompetent administration, the only way out would be to reduce expenditure and give special envoy Khalilzad sufficient time to work out withdrawal modalities with US allies, but without disclosing timetables that allow the antagonists of the US/Afghan governments to wait out for their advantage.
The writer can be reached at: shashipbmalla@hotmail.com

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