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Global support lets Bangladesh PM withstand election worries

FILE - In this Monday, Dec. 31, 2018, file photo, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina interacts with journalists in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Hasina is set to begin a third straight term as Bangladesh's prime minister after a landslide election victory, but critics fear her coalition's dominance in Parliament leaves space for her to be more authoritarian. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath, File)

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Congratulatory messages are flowing to Bangladesh Prime Minister-elect Sheikh Hasina, ensuring she will withstand calls to investigate allegations of widespread serious irregularities in Sunday’s election that was dominated by her coalition.

Hasina is set to form her third consecutive government and fourth overall, and on Thursday figurehead President M. Abdul Hamid invited her to form a Cabinet. The new members of Parliament took their oaths on Thursday, though seven opposition members boycotted the ceremony. The new Cabinet ministers are to take their oaths on Monday.

International reaction to the allegations of irregularities was not clear initially, but the scenario quickly settled after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi showed the way and China followed, congratulating Hasina for the massive victory, in which her Awami League party-led alliance won 288 seats in the 300-seat Parliament. The opposition-led alliance had only seven seats.

Saudi Arabia, Russia, Qatar, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Bhutan and Pakistan congratulated Hasina, while the United States and the European Union said they wanted to continue to cooperate with the government.

After coming to power in 2008, Hasina cautiously began building strategic partnerships with India, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. She repeated that when she returned to power in 2014.

Bangladesh joined a 34-nation Islamic military coalition under the leadership of Saudi Arabia to fight terrorism and is building its first nuclear power plant with Russia and India. Hasina bought two submarines from China and invited Japan to invest in infrastructure development, especially in power plants.

Bangladesh also became a member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is a potential rival to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The European Union is a big export market, especially for Bangladesh garment products. Bangladesh traditionally buys its regular military weapons from China.

The country earns about $30 billion a year from exports of its cheap garment products, mainly to the United States and European Union, and is the world’s second-largest garment producer after China.

China is Bangladesh’s largest import source, while India is the second largest.

“So we import from them and then we export to Western markets,” M. Humayun Kabir, a former Bangladeshi ambassador to Washington and an analyst in international affairs, said in an interview.

Bangladesh has other ties to the West beyond trade. “Value-wise we believe in democracy. So, we are also value-wise connected to them,” Kabir said.

European nations and the U.S. are also home to a large Bangladeshi diaspora. “These are people living in those countries becoming or contributing to those societies. So, this … is how we are connected to the Western countries,” he said.

In a statement issued after Sunday’s election, the U.S. expressed concern about “credible reports of harassment, intimidation, and violence” but said it wanted continue to work with Bangladesh.

“The United States remains deeply invested in the future of Bangladesh and its democratic development,” it said. “Bangladesh’s impressive record of economic development and respect for democracy and human rights are mutually reinforcing, and we look forward to continue working with the ruling government and opposition toward advancing these interrelated goals.”

Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman congratulated Hasina for winning the election.

Analyst Kabir said during her 10 years leading Bangladesh, Hasina has built a successful relationship with influential and strategically crucial countries and has upgraded her image by hosting Rohingya Muslim refugees who were driven violently from neighboring Myanmar.

“Bangladesh is a good story in terms of development and progress,” Kabir said. And her solid election victory shows that Bangladesh’s economic development has the political support of voters, he said.

“So that story is now resonating well on the international community and that’s why we are seeing (so many countries) are congratulating the prime minister for the outstanding performance in the election,” he said.

Kabir said the international community wants to see Bangladesh as a stable nation. “We need to be more competitive for example, we need to do reforms in our labor sector for example, we need to also develop our infrastructure for example, we need to update our regulatory framework for example, because international investors always look at those issues, so now they’re looking at Bangladesh from a positive frame,” he said.

But Kabir said authorities should address the concerns of irregularities in the election.

More than a dozen people were killed in election-related violence Sunday, and the election campaign was dogged by allegations of the arrests and jailing of thousands of Hasina’s opponents. The most prominent of those jailed is Hasina’s archrival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who was deemed ineligible to run for office because of a corruption case her supporters say was politically motivated.

The Election Commission and other departments were accused of overlooking complaints of irregularities. Ahead of the election, a new digital security law was enacted that raised concern it would curb speech and media freedoms.

On Friday, Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a briefing in Geneva that they were concerned about violence and alleged human rights violations in Bangladesh before, during and after the elections.

“There are credible reports of fatalities and numerous injuries on polling day alone. There are worrying indications that reprisals have continued to take place, notably against the political opposition, including physical attacks and ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests, harassment, disappearances and filing of criminal cases. Reports suggest that violent attacks and intimidation, including against minorities, have been disproportionately carried out by ruling party activists, at times with complicity or involvement of law enforcement officers,” Shamdasani said.

New York-based group Human Rights Watch urged an independent investigation into the alleged irregularities. The U.S., the EU and the U.N. all expressed their concerns.

“International donors, the United Nations and friends of Bangladesh should remember that elections are about the rights of voters, not those in power,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in a statement.

In Zia’s absence, opposition parties formed a coalition led by Kamal Hossain, a former member of Hasina’s Awami League who was foreign minister under Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founding leader.

Hossain’s small party, Gono Forum, does not have much popular support. Hasina and Zia, on the other hand, have much larger support bases and attract hundreds of thousands of supporters to their rallies.

A day after the election during a briefing with foreign journalists and election observers, Hasina came down heavily on the opposition. She refused a suggestion that she offer her political foes an olive branch.

“The opposition you see, who are they? The main party, BNP, it was established by a military dictator (Zia’s husband, Ziaur Rahman) who introduced martial law in this country. There were no constitutional rights for the people,” Hasina said.

She dismissed questions about the fairness of the vote and said it was a “very peaceful election.”

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