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Bangladesh: Elections

Volume 688: debated on Thursday 11 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What assessment they have made of current electoral developments in Bangladesh.

My Lords, we are deeply concerned that the Awami League alliance has declared its intention to boycott elections on 22 January. The people of Bangladesh deserve a free, fair, credible, peaceful and universally accepted election. For that to happen, all parties should feel that they are able to participate in the elections as of necessity. We look to the caretaker Government to create conditions under which full participation will be possible. In the interests of all Bangladeshis we urge all parties to work constructively to resolve their differences.

My Lords, does the Minister think there might be a role here for the Commonwealth in finding a replacement for the chief adviser, who is the chief obstacle to free and fair elections, and also perhaps in providing the resources that are needed to clean up the register before a polling day that would have to be deferred? Are any other initiatives being considered by the international community to ensure that the people of Bangladesh get a fair choice on 22 January or some time thereafter?

My Lords, completing an appropriate electoral register would certainly take one beyond 22 January, although I am advised that the terms of Article 123(3) of Bangladesh’s constitution do not give scope for that much flexibility; the requirement is said to be absolute. I am no expert on the Bangladeshi constitution, as your Lordships will understand, but that is what I am advised.

As for the Commonwealth, I believe that it can certainly play a role. It has a fine record—Don McKinnon as Secretary-General has a particularly fine record—in achieving successful elections and, in many cases, working in the inter-election period in order to ensure that the right machinery is there, that voters are registered correctly and that when the electoral monitors come in for the last phase they are able to see a credible election. Such steps would be invaluable at this time.

My Lords, do the Government agree with the European Union’s warning that,

“a failure of the current electoral process would be a major setback for democracy and for the international credibility of the country”?

What response have Her Majesty’s Government made to the International Crisis Group’s calls for more active political engagement by the West?

My Lords, the failure of an election would unquestionably set back Bangladeshi interests internationally in exactly the way that has been described. My right honourable friend Ian McCartney has been in pretty much continuous discussion with the Bangladeshi Government—they have met repeatedly over many months—to try to secure a successful election. We are deeply engaged, and they listen, but the current reality is that there is a very narrow time envelope, and it is difficult to see what can be achieved by 22 January.

My Lords, I commend the work of the FCO and the Minister’s colleagues thus far in supporting the people of Bangladesh at a critical time. While I regret the decision of some of the major political parties to withdraw from the forthcoming election, does the Minister accept that this was inevitable, given the impression of inflexibility created by the caretaker Government? What more are Her Majesty’s Government able to do to create a level playing field in order to avoid a further crisis and the current danger to Bangladesh’s position in the international community?

My Lords, we have continued to try to persuade the caretaker Government that it is necessary to have all the mechanisms in place for a free, transparent and effective election. I do not think that it would be helpful for Her Majesty’s Government to make comments that appear to judge in one direction or another the wisdom of taking part in elections. Those judgments must be for the political parties in Bangladesh. I add the thought that, generally speaking, we work hard to get credible elections. That is likely to be made impossible if any opposition parties decide that they will not take part. All parties have to consider that in the pursuit of democracy over time.

My Lords, have Her Majesty’s Government received information about the perceived systematic refusal in Bangladesh to register persons belonging to religious minorities, and what is the role of European Union observers if they uncover such irregularities at this stage?

My Lords, I suspect that there are a number of irregularities in the electoral register. We are aware of people being on the voting register who are under the legitimate voting age or who are dead, and a number of people appear on it a great many times. I suspect that there are probably also other irregularities, which is why a credible voting register is essential. I therefore welcome the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in his supplementary question that the Commonwealth may have a special role to play in that regard, given that it has been so successful in the past.