The European Union has decided not to send observers during Bangladesh's upcoming national elections due to "budgetary constraints", Election Commission Secretary Md Jahangir Alam told the media yesterday.
Quoting an email sent by the EU to the Election Commission, EC Secretary Jahangir said the EU thanked the commission for the fruitful meetings of the EU delegation that visited Bangladesh in July and hoped to keep in regular communication with the commission.
According to an EC official, the email also said "at the present time, it is not sufficiently clear whether the necessary conditions will be met at the point in time when the elections take place".
"The EU is currently exploring other options to accompany the electoral process," the email further said.
The EU also did not send any observers in the last two national elections in 2014 and 2018; it last sent observers during the 2008 elections.
The development comes after a week when Members of European Parliament (MEPs) called on the government to restore a safe and enabling environment for NGOs, human rights defenders, activists and religious minorities while expressing deep concern at the deteriorating human rights situation in Bangladesh.
Earlier, on 9 July this year, a six-member Election Exploratory Mission of the EU delegation visited Bangladesh to observe the political situation in the country prior to the national election.
The EU mission wanted to know whether the country's condition is conducive for fair elections considering the last two national polls, the risk of violence, the existence of sufficient legal framework, capacity and preparedness of the Election Commission, press freedom and freedom of expression in the country.
In the weeks after the delegation's arrival, they held meetings with high officials of government bodies including the foreign ministry, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Bangladesh Police, Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tract Affairs, the attorney general, home affairs, information ministry, and law ministry.
During these meetings, the delegation inquired about the possibility of violence before the upcoming national election, poll time security measures, and the overall human rights situation.
The EU delegation met a number of civil society members, some of whom made clear that they still questioned whether a level playing field could be created under the current process.
The delegation also held a series of meetings with the major political parties, where each made their position clear.
The BNP reiterated the demand for a caretaker government, which the Jamaat-e-Islami also supported, the Jatiya Party chose to strike a balance, urging the government to sit for dialogue.
The ruling Awami League said the election-time government would be formed only under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
In a meeting with top journalists of the country, the EU was made aware of the concerns regarding the Digital Security Act.
AL indifferent, BNP enthused
Reacting to the EU decision, Awami League Joint General Secretary Mahbubul Alam Hanif told The Business Standard, "It is their [EU] own matter. However, the next national election will be held on time according to the constitution of Bangladesh."
The decision will have no impact on the elections, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam said on Thursday.
"The arrival or absence of the European Union's representatives will not have any impact on the election. This has happened in the past and it has not diminished the credibility [of the elections]. The EU delegation met with all constituencies," he said.
Meanwhile, BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said the EU's decision underscores the absence of a conducive environment for conducting free and fair elections in the country.
"The EU's team during their visit to Bangladesh had engaged extensively with stakeholders from all political parties and their unequivocal assessment highlights the challenges in ensuring a fair electoral process, the BNP leader said yesterday.
Experts fear lack of election acceptance
In his reaction, M Humayun Kabir, former ambassador of Bangladesh to the US, said the EU not sending observers is likely to reduce international recognition and acceptance of the elections.
"The EU cited budgetary deficit for their decision. But they traveled to Bangladesh with a large team recently but there was no shortage of budget that time," the former diplomat said.
Shahab Enam Khan, professor of international relations at Jahangirnagar University, said it was a strong message from the EU about Bangladesh's upcoming national elections.
"The EU wants to ensure election credibility according to their own standard. Political parties should focus on this issue and talk to them [EU], the professor said.
Impact on the economy
Professor Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) commented that there is possibility that the development may impact Bangladesh's economy.
"Their [EU] concerns should not be taken lightly. They may take action if their concerns are not addressed. They have done so in the past," said the economist.
"Earlier, the EU discontinued 'Everything But Arms (EBA)' in Myanmar and Cambodia. GSP Plus discontinued in Sri Lanka and Pakistan," Prof Mustafizur Rahman said, citing the example.
"We don't only have trade relations with EU countries. There are things like investment, borrowing, development partnership at stake. Impact can be created in these areas as well," he added.
However, Dr MA Razzaque, chairman of Research and Policy Integration for Development (RAPID), said there is little chance of a negative impact on trade or GSP benefits in the near future due to the EU decision.
"This is because the EU goes through several processes before making any decisions against trade," he said, adding that their concerns should be taken seriously.
No EU observers in 2018 elections
In 2018 also, the European Union did not send an observation team during the national elections citing a plethora of reasons.
The then EU Ambassador to Bangladesh, Rensje Teerink, said it was quite expensive to send a credible observer mission as it required a large number of observers and months of preparation.
"We have therefore decided not to send a team this time round. That doesn't mean that we're not going to follow these elections. We will definitely be paying close attention to the developments in the country," she said in an interview with DW.
She also said, "One of the most important criteria is the time span available to us to carry out the mission. Then, there are security constraints in certain places. So there are multiple criteria we consider before taking the decision."
What EU mission said after 2008 elections
The overall conclusion of the 2008 parliamentary elections marked an important step in the restoration of democratic governance to Bangladesh, the EU said in its final report on the observation.
The report stated, in accordance with EU election observation methodology, the EU Election Observation Missions (EOM) to Bangladesh assessed the conduct of the JS elections in line with international standards and best practice for democratic elections.
Minor technical difficulties aside, the EU EOM concluded that professionalism, transparency and credibility were the hallmarks of the election and that the election broadly met international standards.
The outcome of the election appears to reflect the will of the people of Bangladesh and EU EOM observers did not report patterns of fraud in the process, said the EU report.