Can we imagine the incident that took place in the House of Commons on January 15, in our Jatiya Sangsad? On that night, UK MPs rejected Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal by 230 votes. Following a long negotiation with the European Union, May struck the deal which sets out the terms of Britain's exit from the EU on 29 March 2019. Parliament voted 432-202 against her deal. The most intriguing thing for us is that as many as 118 MPs of May's own party, the Conservative party, voted with the opposition parties against the deal. It is the largest defeat for a prime minister in British history. But it appears as one of the glaring examples of the power of MPs in a parliamentary democracy.
This will never happen in our democracy because of Article 70 of the Constitution. The constitutional provision imposes stringent restrictions on MPs. They are not allowed to vote against party decision in the House. If anybody defies his/her party whip and votes in the parliament against the party stance on any issue, the member will risk losing membership in the House. The kind of parliamentary democracy we have been practising is different from the one in the UK—the birthplace of the Westminster model of democracy.
Protest is vital in a democracy. Importance of dissenting voices is immensely significant for a vibrant democracy. But our MPs cannot protest against any decision of their party even if it appears to be a blunder. They cannot upset their party's stance on any issue in parliament. They are not free to act out of their own conscience; they are not free to vote as they wish. Their respective party dictates them. According to a High Court judgement, they have become prisoners of their own parties. How, then, can we expect a vibrant parliament?
The prevailing situation does not come as a surprise. It was predicted in 1972 when the constitutional provision was made to rein in MPs. A number of MPs, who were members of the Constitution Drafting Committee in 1972, had strongly opposed the inclusion of Article 70 to impose restrictions on MPs.
Awami League leader Asaduzzaman Khan, who became leader of the opposition in the 1979 parliament, was one of them. He had given a note of dissent against restrictions on MPs where he explained that the inclusion of this article was against all principles of democracy and violated the rights of the voters, and that it would make MPs subservient to their party high-ups, and more so when they occupy top positions in the government. Two other AL MPs, Hafiz Habibur Rahman and Muntaquim Chowdhury, had also strongly opposed Article 70, and like Khan had released notes of dissent in this regard. However, their opposition did not work. Restrictions were imposed on MPs in the 1972 Constitution of a newly independent Bangladesh.
After restoration of parliamentary democracy in 1991 following the end of the autocratic Ershad regime, this restriction was widely blamed for the birth of the large-scale House boycott culture since 1995. It was noticed that whenever the main opposition decided to boycott the House, none of its MPs dared to join the House defying the decision.
Over the years, the stringent restrictions imposed on MPs by Article 70 have widely been blamed for making our parliament dysfunctional. But, the situation remains unchanged, forcing democracy to pay heavily. If the government wants to make the new parliament functional, it should immediately move to set MPs free by amending Article 70. This should be done if we want to prove true the claim that we follow the Westminster model of democracy. What we noticed on January 15 in the House of Commons is the strength and beauty of the Westminster model of democracy. The other part of the story is also noteworthy. Our MPs enjoy unlimited freedom of speech in the House.
Article 78 (3) of our constitution provides them with the privilege saying a member of parliament shall not be liable to proceedings in any court in respect of anything said, or any vote given, by him in parliament or in any committee thereof. This provision was made with the aim of allowing MPs to speak openly in any debate and discussion without fearing legal action including defamation and the contempt of court. But this provision could not contribute to developing a healthy democracy.
Over the years, it has been noticed that many MPs abused the privilege to launch indecent verbal attacks on opponents. The quality of language used in the parliamentary debates has deteriorated. The role of the speaker in preventing MPs, particularly those of the ruling party, from abusing this privilege, has not been praiseworthy. If the government wants to turn the House into a place of healthy debate and discussion, the ruling party must take the lead. The role of the speaker must be proactive, and the office should be strengthened for other purposes including determining the businesses of the House. The speaker must act as the guardian of the House, and his or her disposition should not be seen as partisan.
The constitution gives the parliament very important functions. Apart from enacting laws, it is supposed to hold the government accountable for its work. There are many devices for this. The committee system is one of the most important apparatuses for the House to function. But, it could not be strengthened mainly due to the hostile attitude of the government towards these committees. It was noticed in the past that whenever the committees were vocal against alleged anomalies in the ministries or departments, ministers would rush to the prime minister complaining against the chiefs of the committees. The prime minister would sit with the chiefs of these committees and urge them to work together with the ministers. The committees are not supposed to work with the ministries. The committees are watchdogs; their work is to scrutinise the functions of the ministries and to see if there are any anomalies in their work. So, if the new government wants to have a functional committee system, it must not threaten the committee chairmen. It should also take initiatives to enact a law empowering the committees to enforce the attendance of witnesses and examining them on oath, affirmation or otherwise, and compel production of documents. The Constitution of 1972 speaks of the enactment of such a law. But none of the successive governments complied with the constitutional provision. In absence of the law, some committees in the past appeared helpless as they could not do anything when a witness refused to appear before them.
We all might have forgotten the constitutional provision of the office of Ombudsman. Article 77 of the constitution clearly says the parliament may, by law, provide for the establishment of the office of Ombudsman. According to the constitution, the Ombudsman shall exercise such powers and perform such functions as parliament may, by law, determine, including the power to investigate any action taken by a ministry, a public officer or a statutory public authority. It shall prepare an annual report concerning the discharge of its functions, and such report shall be laid before parliament. Office of the Ombudsman is supposed to be another big weapon of the parliament to exercise checks and balance on the executive. But none of the successive governments since 1972 has made moves to appoint an Ombudsman.
Given the above situation prevailing over the years, is it wise to expect the new parliament, constituted through the December 30 election, to deliver? Moreover, if we look at the way the election was held, it is difficult to expect much from the new House. Transparency International Bangladesh in a study report said electoral irregularities like stamping ballot papers the night before the polls and ballot stuffing by capturing booths on Election Day took place in 47 out of 50 constituencies surveyed. Other irregularities include the silence of law enforcers and administrative officials, casting of fake votes, barring voters from going to polling stations, forcing voters to cast vote for a specific symbol and barring polling agents from going to the centres. It termed the election "partially participatory, non-competitive, questionable and faulty" and demanded judicial inquiry into the reported irregularities during the election.
The resounding victory of ruling Awami League-led alliance in the polls marred by alleged irregularities as stipulated in the TIB's report has diminished the scope for emergence of an official opposition in the new parliament. The AL-led alliance together grabbed 288 seats out of 298, with the ruling party alone bagging 259 seats. The BNP-led alliance managed to secure only seven seats.
Against this backdrop, Jatiya Party (JP) has decided to sit on the opposition bench in the new parliament. The JP, a key component of the AL-led grand alliance, emerged as the second largest party by obtaining 20 seats. It needed at least five more seats to get official recognition as the opposition, according to the verbal directive given by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman during a debate in the first parliament on April 12, 1973.
In the first parliamentary election held in 1973, the AL won 293 seats. The opposition parties—Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, Bangladesh Jatiya League, National Awami Party and others—obtained only seven seats. They extended their support to Jatiya League leader Ataur Rahman Khan and demanded that he be recognised as the leader of the opposition. During the debate over recognition as opposition, Bangabandhu said a party could not be recognised as opposition if it did not have at least 25 MPs. If any group has less than 25 MPs and at least 10 MPs, it can be termed a parliamentary group, not a parliamentary party, said Bangabandhu. In the first parliament 45 years ago, none of the parties was recognised as official opposition due to their poor strength in the House. Yet, the outgoing speaker recognised the JP as the official opposition and its chief HM Ershad as the leader of the opposition, paying no heed to Bangabandhu's verbal directives.
The JP became the main opposition in the immediate past parliament formed through the 2014 election, which the BNP-led alliance boycotted. It won 34 seats and its senior leader Raushan Ershad was recognised as the leader of the opposition with a status of a minister. Three JP MPs were also made ministers. Their dual role has been criticised. The party could not play its due role as the main opposition in parliament in the last five years. This time, the government banks on JP. In addition, the ruling party wants some MPs belonging to the components of the AL-led 14-party alliance to sit on the opposition bench too. This is a bizarre situation. Workers Party, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (Inu) and some other components of the AL-led alliance participated in the election under the banner of the alliance. They even used the AL's electoral symbol 'boat' in the polls. Among them, both Workers Party and JSD were part of the immediate past government. Now, they were asked to sit on the opposition bench. Again, a handmade opposition is on the cards! Moreover, the formation of the new parliament has set a dubious record. Lawmakers elected in the December 30 polls took oath as members of the 11th parliament on January 3 with the 10th Jatiya Sangsad still in place. The same thing happened five years ago when the lawmakers, elected in the 10th national polls, were sworn in, constituting the 10th parliament two weeks before the dissolution of the 9th JS. But as per constitutional provisions, MPs, elected in the December 30 polls, could not take oath and assume office before the expiry of the 10th parliament's tenure.
According to article 123 (3) (b), the lawmakers, elected in the December 30 polls, were required to wait for the expiry of the term of the 10th parliament. Article 72 (3) clearly says, "Unless sooner dissolved by the president, parliament shall stand dissolved on the expiration of the period of five years from the date of its first meeting." The first sitting of the 10th parliament was held on January 29, 2014, meaning its five-year tenure expired on January 28.
The precedent set by our lawmakers cannot be found in any other existing parliamentary democracy. Countries such as the UK, New Zealand, Australia and Canada go to general elections, dissolving their parliaments. The question of constituting a parliament while keeping the existing one in place does not arise in these countries.
Three weeks after the election, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, on January 19 at a rally in the capital organised by the ruling party to celebrate its landslide victory in the 11th parliamentary election, promised to establish political rights of all citizens. This is an immensely significant promise. It has been evident worldwide that there is no alternative to ensuring people's political rights if a country wants to develop as a democratic as well as prosperous nation. This can only happen in a vibrant democracy. And parliament must be made functional for the sake of growth of a democracy in the real sense. True democracy is needed to sustain growth and development. To make the new parliament functional, a set of sweeping reforms as discussed above are urgently required. No one should forget that a dysfunctional parliament is the symbol of a dysfunctional democracy.
Shakhawat Liton is Planning Editor, The Daily Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org