Skip to main content

Elections in Bangladesh

Volume 574: debated on Wednesday 29 January 2014

I am grateful to have been able to secure this Westminster Hall debate. I welcome the opportunity not only to discuss recent elections in Bangladesh but to talk about the lessons of the past few months—I believe that the UK can learn from those lessons—and the opportunities that are open to us as we help Bangladesh to work towards political stability in the coming years.

Bangladesh is a country that has seen significant progress since its infancy. Responding to the millennium development goals, it has reduced the poverty gap ratio from 17% to 6.5%. Investment in children’s health has resulted in a reduction in the mortality rate of under-fives, and the prevalence of underweight children has almost halved. The World Bank recognises the advances that the country continues to make, suggesting that it will become a middle-income country by 2021.

Clearly, what happens in Bangladesh is hugely important for its prosperity and the life chances of the people living there. However, the recent election has seen those advances undermined by the country’s own political leadership. As we all know, on 5 January, Bangladesh held its 10th general election. On paper at least, it demonstrated overwhelming support for the Awami League, which won 232 of the 300 seats. However, the reality of the election was a turnout that was reported as being as low as 10% and a mass boycott by Opposition parties that meant that half of the seats remained uncontested. Schools used as polling stations were burned down and the lives of 21 were people lost.

We celebrate the progress made by Bangladesh since its modern birth in 1971, but the ongoing mistrust between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist party and other Opposition parties points to a dysfunctional political climate in which the prospect of free and fair elections seems elusive.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this enormously important debate and endorse what he has said about the importance of the progress that Bangladesh has made. Does he agree that one of the fundamental problems with the election was the Awami League’s refusal to follow the precedent of previous elections, whereby there had been a caretaker Government to oversee fair process, foreign observers and the rest, and that that failure and the political thinking behind it led to the tragedy that now confronts us?

My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which has been much debated not just in the House but further afield. The events running up to the election were deeply regrettable. The question whether it was right to press on with the elections will perhaps be left for others to decide—or even for history. Right now, it is vital that the international community takes a lead—as the UK has—in saying that the elections were neither free nor fair and, for that reason, were not right.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing and leading this debate. Like me, he probably has a large number of people from Bangladesh in his constituency. Obviously, they are extremely concerned about what happens back home, to use an expression, because that can have effects here. The absence of an interim Government to oversee the elections was certainly a major setback in a country that is now moving from third-world status and lifting the living standards of its people. Does he agree with me that the United Nations and other international organisations should put pressure on the Bangladeshi Government to stop harassing and jeering the Opposition?

Indeed. In the excellent debate we had in this House a few weeks ago on the political situation in Bangladesh, a recurring theme was concern about human rights abuses and the failure to follow the rule of law adequately in political discussions. It is important to keep that in the forefront of our minds.

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work he has done on this issue and for calling for this debate. He has raised a point that has been raised before in the Chamber: there was a real lack of democratic credibility for the elections that took place. That is the past. The question I have for him—and for the Minister—is about how we move forward. Does he agree that the international community needs to work with the current Government in Bangladesh and urge them to work with the Opposition to work out a time frame and a framework for a future election that will have that democratic credibility?

It is an excellent point. What is required in a situation such as this, where there appears to be deadlock, is for the international community to play an appropriate role. I will go on to speak about Britain’s unique role and ability to help in that regard.

We have that role not least because we are a major investor in Bangladesh: in this calendar year, the Department for International Development will spend around £275 million in Bangladesh. Around a third of that will go directly to the Bangladeshi Government, and a significant proportion of the money that will be spent is aimed at boosting political participation and promoting safety and justice. One programme that falls into that category, called Strengthening Political Participation in Bangladesh, holds three clear goals: first, to make political parties more responsive to citizens and their interests; secondly, to strengthen core democratic institutions, namely the Bangladesh Electoral Commission and Parliament; and thirdly, to ensure that civil society advocates effectively for a more accountable and responsible political system. Despite the commencement of that programme four years ago in 2009, the 2014 election was notable for its success in weakening all three objectives.

The ongoing political conflict has a damaging effect not only on empowerment and accountability but on other things. The Centre for Policy Dialogue has estimated a total economic loss of over £3.8 billion as a result of the conflict around the election caused by blockades and ongoing political turmoil. That loss has hit the transport industry, the agricultural sector and the clothing and textiles industry hardest. Those are three sectors in which Bangladesh must succeed if it is to reach its goal of becoming a middle-income country.

It is only right that in this scenario DFID should reflect on the relative success of the programmes that are funded in conjunction with the United States Agency for International Development and amount to aid of over £56 million over a five-year period. Arguably, their success is questionable. The issue is complex—I am not suggesting that the programmes simply do not work, or that they should be junked or the money withdrawn—and DFID Ministers should look urgently at how that money is spent, so that it can be fully effective in engaging and empowering voters across the country.

An internal review of the programmes would be helpful, as through them we have the potential to shape a relatively young country, and shape a structure that is fair and sustainable. That must be done quickly, as tensions remain high and local elections will take place over the coming months. Will the Minister reflect on that in his discussions with the Department for International Development and, in his reply, will he commit the Government to publishing the findings of the DFID review that is already being spoken about? There is scope for reviewing all in-country programmes in Bangladesh, to assess whether they have made an adequate contribution to building political governance and civic society.

There are no easy answers for the international community as to whether it was right to press ahead with elections or to work to maintain an interim or caretaker Government. I reiterate what I said earlier this month during the excellent debate in the Chamber: whatever someone’s view on that question, it was right, as a nation, to issue statements to make it clear that the elections were neither free nor fair. We are not alone in feeling a responsibility to make public our concerns about the Bangladeshi people caught up in this conflict. The elections have not only encouraged a reaction from the UK Government, from Members who participated in a Back-Bench business debate earlier this month and from those who are here today, but they have led to an international response. Julie Bishop, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, has called for new elections, stating:

“The government and the opposition must take up their shared responsibility to hold a new, fully contested and transparent election as soon as possible.”

She has also said:

“It is vital that the people of Bangladesh are able to express their democratic will and exercise real choice.”

The hon. Gentleman has referred to the Australian Foreign Minister’s comment that there should be elections “soon”. In Pakistan, for example, General Zia said when he took over as dictator that elections would be held soon, and that went on for many years. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to secure a time frame for new, fresh elections, rather than simply saying “Elections will take place soon”, which may mean by the end of the five-year term.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The timetable will come about not by our imposing it from on high but through negotiation with the interested parties. We are talking about the general election, but we are about to roll into a period of local elections in Bangladesh. In whatever we do, we must look first and foremost to the immediate window ahead of us to try to build capacity in the democratic process. If we can build faith in the democratic process through the local elections, that may move through to the other elections.

The hon. Gentleman says that we should move forward and that people should take part in the local elections. Does he really think that the Opposition, who say they have been prevented from taking part in those full and fair elections, will put up candidates in local elections? I believe that that is very unlikely.

We can only go on the statements of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and I am encouraged that the party has confirmed that it will take part in the elections. I sincerely hope that parties can be equally engaged in a fair and democratic process that empowers voters. The hon. Gentleman’s scepticism is completely understandable in the circumstances. We must not be cynical, but it is incumbent on all of us to be sceptical about the statements that have been released. As we know, a series of statements have been put out and rescinded in the past.

The deputy spokesperson of the US State Department has said that

“the results of the just-concluded elections do not appear to credibly express the will of the Bangladeshi people”,

and called for new elections to be held “as soon as possible.” The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs called on parties to resume dialogue and to demonstrate “calm and restraint”. In Germany, the Federal Foreign Office stated that the election was an extremely poor reflection of the electorate’s will. Even the Japanese ambassador to Dhaka, Shiro Sadoshima, said that

“the political leadership in Bangladesh, regardless of their positions, should immediately initiate serious efforts to provide Bangladeshi people with a voting opportunity for making political choice in a manner that responds to their aspiration.”

Not all countries have been as helpful however; Russia, India, China, Vietnam and Nepal have come out in support of the new Government.

It is right to condemn human rights abuses—a subject that we do not have time to go into today—committed by all sides, but we must not lose sight of the imminent needs of the Bangladeshi people. We must encourage the President to act on the assurances given to work with the 18-party alliance. We must discourage the personal exchanges that have occurred between party leaders, because such actions have enormous implications for their ability to work together in the interests of Bangladesh. We should call for the release of the many political prisoners who have been detained in the run-up to the presidential election and who await bail. That is happening, but clearly not fast enough. I ask the Minister to reflect on that in his response.

We must also celebrate some signs of progress. As I have said, Bangladesh has plans in place for this year’s local elections, and it is incumbent on us to ask what practical support is necessary to ensure that those, and the subsequent phases in March and May this year, happen cleanly. It goes without saying that Britain, where half a million members of the Bangladeshi diaspora live, should continue to play a significant role. Those individuals remind us of Britain’s historical relationship with Bangladesh, our privileged role as a member of the UN Security Council, our position as a key member of the Commonwealth, our relationship with the USA and other English-speaking nations and our seat at the heart of Europe. Working from this place with our partners, I hope that Britain will make the contribution that only it can to help the people of Bangladesh take the step up to the fully democratic system that they deserve.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone—although perhaps not for that introduction, to be honest. May I begin by saying that I am grateful to the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) for securing this important debate? I apologise to him at the outset for not being the Minister with direct responsibility for Bangladesh, but I read the Backbench Business Committee debate from 16 January before this debate and I give him a commitment that I will ensure that his remarks today are passed to Baroness Warsi and, in view of the comments he made, to my ministerial counterparts in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

It was clear from reading the report of that debate that Members on both sides of the House share a common commitment to the well-being, future prosperity and stable democratic development of Bangladesh, but considerable concerns have been expressed about all three areas. As the hon. Gentleman said, the relationship between the UK and Bangladesh is strong, with considerable ties of history and family. We want to promote a shared belief in democracy, good governance and sustainable development. He is right to say that the recent election in Bangladesh fell drastically short of the ideals we would expect. Our response falls into three areas. First, we expressed public regret at the lack of participation and the scenes of violence. Secondly, we call on Bangladesh’s political parties to begin a dialogue that finds a long-term, sustainable solution, in a way that does not exist at the moment, for the good of Bangladesh’s people. Thirdly, we recognise that a proper functioning democracy, as we would understand it, is vital for Bangladesh’s future security and prosperity. I shall take each of those in turn.

Successive British Governments have believed that peaceful, credible elections that express the will of the voters are the true mark of a mature, functioning democracy. The 10th parliamentary elections, held in Bangladesh on 5 January, were constitutionally correct, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, but the main Opposition party did not participate. Indeed, half the electorate did not get the chance to vote. There must therefore be concern as to whether the will of the Bangladeshi people has been properly reflected and whether the elections met the goals of a true democracy.

In the run-up to those elections, the UK engaged with all political parties in a number of ways, calling on them to ensure full, open and participatory elections. My honourable and noble Friend Baroness Warsi delivered the same message personally to leaders of the ruling and Opposition parties when she visited on 12 December. Her public statement on 6 January expressed our disappointment at the election outcome and condemned the acts of intimidation and unlawful political violence. Those acts are striking: more than 500 people are believed to have lost their life as a result of political violence in 2013; 21 deaths were reported on polling day; and more than 100 polling centres, many of which were schools and colleges in poor rural areas, were burned down. By any standard, that is shocking. The deaths and destruction sadden me, as I know they sadden Members on both sides of the House.

We remain deeply concerned about the deaths and the continued political harassment, and the heightened political tensions that underlie them. However, as the hon. Gentleman said in his well-balanced and fair speech, there have been some positive moves recently. We are pleased that the Bangladesh Nationalist party has condemned the violence and announced a suspension of its enforced strikes and transport blockades. The relaxation of police restrictions at Opposition party offices and the granting of bail for some BNP leaders by the High Court brings some promise, but it is not nearly enough. Further bold moves by all sides are needed if the needs and wishes of the people of Bangladesh are going to be met and put first. As he said in his balanced speech, in the meantime, the UK continues to do what it can to support Bangladesh and its democracy.

We remain absolutely committed to supporting the Bangladesh development goals, as laid out in the millennium development goals. Between 2011 and 2015, as the hon. Gentleman said, our support will lift 1.5 million people out of extreme poverty, provide access to safe water for 1.3 million people and ensure that 500,000 boys and girls complete their primary school education. I am pleased that UK aid is working to improve governance in Bangladesh. It is vital to develop a political system that is more capable, more accountable and much more responsive than it is at the moment. I will ensure that the remarks that the hon. Gentleman made are brought to the attention of DFID Ministers.

The hon. Gentleman briefly mentioned the support that was given around election time. The UK supported the Bangladesh Election Commission and work was done to update the voters register, train polling officials and develop new systems to publish candidates’ details, including declarations of wealth, which I imagine is a controversial topic in that part of the world. Notwithstanding the outcome of the poll, we believe that those improvements will stand the Government in good stead in future elections.

Unless the hon. Gentleman particularly wants to raise anything else, I shall end where I began; by congratulating him on securing the debate and on the tone with which he led it, and by thanking him for his continued interest in the country. It is shared by many across the House. Bangladesh is an important partner for the United Kingdom and we will continue to support its people in their aspirations, as we see them, for a more stable, prosperous and democratic future. In doing that, however, it is important that we never shy away from delivering tough messages to the political leadership to try and ensure that those expectations are fulfilled.

Sitting suspended.