Published: Monday, March 18, 2013

Culture of parliament boycott in Bangladesh

Page -10Since Bangladesh returned to parliamentary system in 1991, its parliament (Jatiyo Sangsad) has remained dysfunctional, and thereby posed a serious threat to Bangladesh’s democratic system and good governance. 
During the lives of Fifth, Seventh, Eighth and Nine Parliaments, the Opposition, which is an indispensible component of the system, led by Awami League (AL), Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), respectively have missed 34%, 43%, 60% and 83.38% of the working days of parliamentary sessions by boycotting it (CPD-CMI Work Paper-2 and TIB’s Parliament Evaluation Report).
This culture of parliament boycott is unheard of in any other democratic countries of the world although there is a history of boycotting parliamentary elections. For example, Congress party of India challenged British Indian Government for going back on its promises enshrined in Indian Act of 1935, and not introducing responsible government in the centre by boycotting the provincial elections.
Recently, in Kuwait and Ukraine the opposition parties threatened to boycott 2012 parliamentary elections in order to compel the ruling party either to amend or repeal certain electoral laws, which would have prevented holding of a free, fair, and meaningful election. But after being elected no opposition has ever boycotted its legislatures.
The opposition should discern that as representatives of its constituencies and paid for to undertake the task for it has been elected, it is immoral on its part not to carry out its duties. And if it does, the parties in opposition lose their credibility in the eyes of the electorate.
Immoral or not, the Opposition- led alternately by AL and BNP is merrily practicing the boycott culture without any regard or attention to electorate’s sentiments, and increasingly resorting to this extra-parliamentary means in order to, not exactly to make the executive behave, but to fulfill its own agenda.
It is pertinent to mention that, according to parliamentary procedures, whatever the issues are, national or international, should be settled on the floor of the House.
Unfortunately, by shifting away from its constitutional role the Opposition in Bangladesh is giving more prominence to extra-parliamentary form of opposition than the constitutional one.
Such activities of the Opposition in Bangladesh are accelerating the downward trends in country’s democratisation process. Why are we in these predicaments? Briefly, the opposition’s irresponsible role emanates from a number of factors:
• The rigid and intransient attitude of the ruling party in the context of Article 70 of the constitution and its unwillingness to recognise opposition’s rights;
• Lack of responsibilities on the part of the opposition;
• The relationship between the two major parties — at the heart of which is power;
• Lack of democratic political culture;
• Unwillingness of the losing political party not to accept the election results; and
• Role of a partisan Speaker.
Whatever are the reasons a parliament, in the absence of its opposition, can neither deliver the fruits of democracy nor consolidate the system.
No democratic politics is possible without transparency and accountability. In order to achieve such politics there must be a limited government i.e. existence of various formal and informal mechanisms to restraint the arbitrary powers of the government.
According to John Locke, “in a system like ours (i.e. parliamentary system), in which state power is somewhat defused, there can be no limited government unless and until the executive remains subordinate to the legislature so that the legislature can detect, prevent arbitrary behaviour or illegal and unconstitutional conduct of the executive and hold executive to account.”
Legislature, which is known as the parliament in a parliamentary system, thus, bears the major responsibilities of oversight activities of the executive. The constitutional provisions, rules of procedure, role of individual MPs and most importantly the role of opposition is crucial in ensuring parliament’s oversight and other responsibilities such as offering a credible alternative to the majority in power, defending civil and political rights of the citizens and demonstrating that minority has the constitutional rights to disagree and ability of the citizens to resolve conflicts in peaceful manner in a parliamentary system.
As such, a recognised, legal and constructive opposition has been invented in a parliamentary system to uphold the basic principles of a democratic system. Bottom line is that there can be no democracy without opposition’s critical and constructive role.
Unfortunate fact is that the Opposition in Bangladesh has not lived up to its constitutional obligations. Traverse of Opposition in Bangladesh is not very encouraging as it has had rough sailings since the emergence of the country as an independent state i.e. even during the much lamented democratic era of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
However, all throughout mid-1970s this disastrous culture of parliament boycott was shunned by the then opposition although the system itself allowed it a limited role. Then Opposition AL attended the parliamentary sessions of the Second Parliament and attempted to scrutinise government’s actions and policies by carrying out activities both inside and outside the parliament.
Interestingly, AL, which participated Ershad’s Third Parliamentary elections, led the Opposition and validated all his Marshal Law activities also simultaneously introduced this menace by boycotting the first and second sessions of Ershad’s rubber stamp Parliament.
This was the first time in country’s constitutional history that an elected Opposition party boycotted the parliamentary sessions while enjoying the financial, diplomatic and other privileges as Members of Parliament (MPs). This was an incongruous act on the part of the AL led Opposition that enhanced country’s existing non-democratic culture.
Renewed hopes for a functional parliament, elected through an internationally recognised free, fair, and meaningful election in 1991, were soon dashed to the ground due to the factors already mentioned as they were manifested in the behaviours of our two major political parties.
Initially Opposition-led by AL joined the Fifth Parliament, much to the relief of Bangladeshis, despite its declaration that it would make government’s tenure difficult. The presence of both Treasury and Opposition, the House became lively as the Opposition used various parliamentary mechanisms to scrutinise and hold government to account including an unsuccessful attempt to register a vote no-confidence.
But the Opposition made the fateful decision to boycott the parliament on grounds of Government’s intransient attitudes over its demand for a non-party, non-partisan caretaker government (CTG) for conducting country’s next general elections alleging it for rigging Magura- II bye-election.
It is somewhat understandable why an Opposition in Jatiyo Sangsad is unable to fully carry out its responsibilities but the point is that in the Fifth Parliament, there was a formidable Opposition and had it stayed in the Parliament then perhaps the country could have been spared from this unique phenomenon in Bangladesh’s politics. It was also evidenced that no extra-parliamentary means like parliament boycott by opposition for indefinite period or calling hartals, inflicting untold miseries on the Jonogon (people) in whose name politics was being conducted, the Opposition neither could not unseat the government or make it accept its demand until it resigned en masse.
Consequently, the government had no other options but to hold Sixth Parliamentary election, which was boycotted by the mainstream opposition parties, by dissolving the House. Subsequent BNP government, lacking required legitimacy, had no way out but to concede to AL’s demand for a CTG. The question is: What was then the point of boycotting the parliament and at the same time enjoying its benefits if only en masse resignation and boycotting of parliamentary elections mattered?
Is it not evident that parliament boycott was not necessary when only the strategies like en masse resignation and boycotting parliamentary elections worked? The point, however, is that whether it worked or not, once elected the opposition parties must attend the parliament as soon as it is convened. It is its moral and constitutional duty. Notwithstanding, the Opposition led by BNP in Seventh Parliament repeated the same scenario without en masse resignation and thereby enjoying the parliamentary privileges until the House was dissolved.
Similar tendency continued unabated with increasing period of boycotting of parliament till now. At present, to the amazement and astonishment of the people, BNP led Opposition has already missed 83.8% of the working days till today.
Opposition accuses that the Treasury does not recognise and respect the rights of the opposition, which is serious, and must be tackled. Non-recognition of opposition literally means that in general it is a threat to democratic rights and freedoms and, as such, must be solved. But is the parliament boycott a solution? The Opposition, whichever party it is, should understand that boycott of parliament has become extremely unpopular, as evidenced by a recent survey.
People feel that their representatives are obliged to fulfill their responsibilities, and as such, in the face of continued boycott, it would be difficult for them to face their constituencies. And whatever grievances it has can be and should be highlighted in the parliament even if they are ignored by the ruling party’s obscurantist attitudes, and in extreme cases, familiar parliamentary practice like walk-outs could be staged in order to get the attention of the electorate.
It is, thus, prudent for the Opposition to make its presence felt in the Parliament in the context of an aware electorate, an alert media and live telecasting of plenary sessions so that the people can the judges. In the meantime the door is open for it to make its cases outside the parliament as well.
The Opposition led by BNP, on this pretext or that, almost from the beginning of the convening of Ninth parliament, has been boycotting the parliament. Right now the issue for which it is boycotting the parliament is the issue of reinstating the previous CTG, and it has gone to an extent that it has missed 83.8% of working days during the last fifteen parliamentary sessions.
These long absences from the parliament by Opposition is not only a horrendous act but it also is damaging for its image, popularity and credibility. The flickers of hope visible through Opposition’s attendance in the committees must be made full blown by its presence in the plenary sessions as well.
Otherwise, there should be a law minimizing ninety days of constitutionally permitted absences by the MPs to thirty days. The question is: who will bell the cat? As our two major two political parties are two sides of the same coin.
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The writer is a Political Analyst.