Reforming the political parties
A. T. Rafiqur Rahman looks at the past, present and future of party politics
Political parties are indispensable in democracy. As E. E. Schatts-chneider, a noted political scientist, once said: "The political parties created democracy, and modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties."
Political parties are organisations that seek political power by electing people to political offices so that their positions and philosophy become public policy. They perform four basic functions to ensure that democracy continues as a government of the people, by the people, for the people:
*They organise the electoral competition by designating candidates to run under their labels.
*They articulate the issues that voters feel and voice, and aggregate and unify the electorate behind these issues and candidates.
*Following election, they help organise the government.
*Lastly, they seek to ensure that their preferences, for which voters elected them, are translated into public policies and programs.
Parties emerged largely out of practical necessity. Even in America, the oldest modern democracy, the founding fathers detested parties. In his farewell address, George Washington warned against the "baneful effects of the Sprit of Party." Thomas Jefferson, the drafter of the American Declaration of Independence, abhorred the concept of party so much that he said: "If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all."
Yet, it was the same Jefferson who in 1793, six years into the American government, sowed the seeds of the current Democratic Party. Modern political parties were formed in Europe and America during the 19th century, the first phase being restricted to the elite of the country. But, in the second phase of opening up parties to the popular electorate, it was the US that took the lead in the 1820s, under Jacksonian democracy, much earlier than in Europe. It was in the 1880s that the Indian National Congress was established. During the 20th century, many parties Underwent realignment, and changes in their names and philosophies, in several countries.
Political parties vary in number and strength, depending on the type of democracy and form of government. There are two-party and multi-party systems that usually work in parliamentary, presidential, and mixed forms of governments. Parties usually play a stronger role in a parliamentary system, as in England, than the parties in a presidential form as in US. There is one party system in communist countries, but that does not meet the criterion of political competition prevalent in pluralist democracies.
Historically, political parties came legally under the jurisdiction of society laws and corporate laws. Over time, as the challenges of sustainable democracy became difficult and complex, these broad regulations became ineffective in overseeing the actions and behaviour of parties and called for more specific and targeted legal framework. A search in the internet, under political parties act, will show that scores of countries, from the US, UK, and Germany to South Africa, Bulgaria, and New Zealand, have made laws under different names for registration of political parties, their internal organisation, and accounting and transparency of financial activities.
One of the most comprehensive acts was introduced in Germany in July 1967 (and amended in January 1994). It has seven broad sections, namely: general provisions, internal organisation, nomination of candidates, public financing, presentation of accounts, implementation of bans on unconstitutional parties, and final provisions.
Each section provides detailed guidance/regulations for specific aspects or issues. For example, general provisions covers guidance in five areas: constitutional status and functions of the parties; definition of the term "political party;" active and passive legitimation [legal status]; designation; and equality of treatment.
Presentation of accounts includes regulation on ten items: statutory obligation to publish accounts; illegal donations; statement of income and expenditures; donations; definition of income; individual sources of income; obligations to keep accounts; audit of statement of accounts; audit reports and certificate; and auditors.
Other broad sections provide similar guidance on specific issues. For example, final provisions, providing guidance on necessary adjustments to other laws and regulations, includes six items: amendment to income tax law; amendment to corporate tax law; application of tax regulations; non-applicability of civil code provisions; the federal returning officer's instruments of enforcement; and final settlement.
While each country faces its unique problems and challenges in dealing with political parties, one can benefit immensely from an examination of guidance/ regulations that other countries have made to deal with many similar problems and challenges.
Current EC proposals
The Bangladesh Election Commission (EC) has recently started discussions with political parties on its reform proposals, which have already received support from civil society and media. These proposals revise some provisions in three laws -- Representation of People Order 1972, Election Code of Conduct 1996, and Political Party Registration Rules 2001 -- and add some new provisions. Some provisions, like registration of parties and restrictions on retired public officials, defaulters of loan and utility bill, NGO officials and independent candidates, and limitation of the number of seats that one candidate can contest, were included in the 2001 act, but were not implemented due to opposition from political parties. It is expected that these provisions will be fully incorporated and strengthened in the reform proposals, if necessary, for effective implementation.
Restriction to one constituency
Among the new proposals, some, like making a candidate's full information public, deserve our commendation, while some other proposals require further examination. Restricting one candidate to contesting in not more than three constituencies needs to be reviewed, as it runs contrary to the principles of single member constituency. It is a legacy we inherited, in which we allowed a popular national leader to get elected in several constituencies and then transfer, in the subsequent by-election(s), his or her victory to persons of his or her choice to represent those constituencies except one.
In the process, voters get deprived of their right for a fair choice and the candidates do not get a fair competition at the first instance. This provision deserves to be completely eliminated. If such elimination is not practicable, the cost for such participation and penalties for success should be made onerous. For example, the security deposit for contesting in more than one constituency should be made really high, and it must be forfeited if the candidate is successful.
Ceiling on election expense
Another provision is the limiting of election expense to Taka 5 lakhs, which was hardly followed in previous elections where black money and muscle power ruled. To free elections from these twin influences would be difficult, if not impossible. A realistic estimate of election expenses has to be made. Some guidelines for expenses on temporary staff, publicity, travel, campaign materials, meeting costs, and other items, must be provided, and the duration of election campaigning should be reduced to a minimum, say three weeks. This limiting of expenses will discourage the rich and powerful from overwhelming the voters, while allowing the honest and truly competent to keep the costs of election within reach.
Three other proposals -- requiring three years' membership for a party nominee to contest election, signatures of at least one percent of constituents for an independent candidate, and requiring 33% female representation on party committees -- seem to be fraught with complexities and potential for abuse in implementation. These requirements do not meet the criterion of any principle.
The choice of a party nominee is its internal matter and beyond outside regulations, which are usually applied in such personal matters as age, educational qualification, residence, etc. Even if such a requirement is inserted, it will be open to abuse from day one.
Similarly, signature requirement for an independent candidate is impractical, as 40 to 50% adults are illiterate and cannot sign their names. Moreover, it will only add to the expenses of a potentially good candidate, and extra work for the Election Commission, and could be a significant avenue for corrupt practices. There are pluses and minuses in encouraging and discouraging independent candidates, and election rules that discriminate between candidates may not be the best approach in this area.
The requirement of 33% women representation in party committees has only slogan value but no substantive merit. It brings back to light all the abuses and unintended consequences we suffered due to all kinds of quotas (for example, district, freedom fighters) and representation (for example, women representation in Parliament) in the past.
In most cases, these measures generate fragmentation, limited competition, reverse discrimination, and corrupt practices, without any commensurate benefits, more so in a homogenous society like Bangladesh. Benefits sought in quota and representation may be more fruitfully gained through improvements in social, economic, and cultural conditions.
Additionally, there is no evidence that 33% women membership in committees will bring any special advantage in the performance of the role and functions of a political party. If made into law, it will be observed in show only, and those women members, like their counterparts in the Parliament, will suffer indignity as if they were second-class citizens.
Funding and transparency
The media reports say that registration of political parties includes provisions "designed to ensure financial transparency and democracy within the parties," without giving any details. Both these issues are so crucial to fostering and sustaining responsible political parties that many old and new democracies, with varying economic and political histories, have been grappling with them. Many of them provided elaborate regulations to ensure transparency in the receipts and expenditures of political parties, requiring them to submit annual audited financial statements, and to keep them open to the public and the media.
Recognising the need and importance of money to finance the activities of political parties, several countries, like US, Germany, Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi, South Africa, offer public financing in varying degrees to parties and can-didates. In some cases, party building and maintenance activities, and specific election expenses for party candidates, are kept separate in both public grants and fund management. Recognition of the need For adequate finances for political parties to perform their functions, to provide legitimate avenues for raising/securing that finance, and finally to report how the fund has been utilised, must be included in any dialogue with political parties.
In Bangladesh, historically, funding for parties came from wealthy individuals and voluntary donations from businesses, without any reporting or submission of financial or accounting reports. As campaign expenses soared, not only did businessmen become directly involved as candidates for political offices, replacing genuine party leaders in many cases, they and other wealthy individuals were also forced through chandabazi and various extortion tactics to make contributions to parties.
It also became a common requirement for emerging entrepreneurs and local and foreign investors to make contributions to party funds, as the proverbial "10 per cent" used to be called. Additionally, as a part of our pre-independence as well as current-day practice, government heads of districts and upazillas continue to raise or impose contributions from businesses of all sizes to organise activities to which the ministers and other party officials come for party work and publicity.
Reports on interrogation of suspects in the current campaign against corrupt practices show that many of them collected money for the political parties to be used in election work. While average Bangladeshis were critical of these unauthorised, and often torturous, ways of raising fund for political parties, they never fully appreciated the need for funds for party activities or suggested appropriate avenues for raising the funds.
Various ways for raising funds for party activities in Bangladesh can be discussed. As private associations as well as corporate bodies, they can enroll members and require membership contribution as well as seek voluntary contributions from them. They can actively raise donations from non-member individuals and corporations, with or without limits, barring only foundations, NGOs, professional associations, and other social and cultural organisations. They can own assets like houses and other properties that may generate income. However, any form of donation from any source outside the country must be forbidden, which may be difficult due to increasing globalisation and easy transfer of funds.
Nevertheless, the government may establish a fund for supporting political parties, to which any outside source such as expatriates and foreigners, corporations, government entities and private foundations can contribute. This fund may be disbursed annually (and only for expenditures pertaining to the offices, staff, administration, travel, membership registration, general publicity and similar expenses), based on an agreed formula restric-ted to parties that secured at least 5% vote in the preceding election.
The government may also consider limited public financing by contributing to this fund a fixed yearly sum, say Taka ten crore. The government may also encourage tax-paying Bangladeshis to contribute to the political party fund through their income tax report. While these and any other funding sources may be agreed to, the reform proposals must include provisions for maintaining strict, detailed, and transparent records of all receipts and expenses of political parties, carried through established bank accounts at all levels, and annual auditing and submission of the financial statements for public record and scrutiny.
Democracy in the party
Besides financing, the other area that deserves serious consideration is democracy in the parties. It is widely acknowledged that there is little democracy in major Bangladesh political parties, as evidenced in the unilateral and possibly autocratic action by party chiefs, continuation as party chief without holding regular meetings of the executive council, and, most importantly, in the final selection of nominees for election by the party chief.
Ensuring democracy in the parties is a thorny and complicated issue, especially in a country where individual leadership remains the central focus in the public perception of a party. It is unclear how much can be done in this area, as the political parties behave more like "machine" organisations than "ideological" entities.
A party organisation becomes a machine when it recruits its mem bers by the use of tangible incentives or patronage -- money, politi-cal jobs, an opportunity to get favours from government – and the "machine" is characterised by a high degree of leadership control over member activity.
At the other extreme is the ideological party, where principle is the main focus and members fight for their values, spurning patronage. Where the former is hierarchical, disciplined, and less democratic, the latter is usually more democratic, but contentious and factionalised (for example, British Labour Party before Tony Blair).
The major political parties in Bangladesh are a mix, but mostly on the machine side as there is very limited ideological differentiation. Given the name recognition and patronage dominated nature of Bangladesh political culture, the scope for moving parties towards ideological point through a blend of direct and indirect measures may be limited.
Among the direct measures would include:
*More opportunity for party units to call for national convention/councils to select party chief and other office bearers, especially after a loss in the election.
*Establishment of party unit at each constituency and some form of its real participation in the selection of its candidate for election.
*Establishment of a formal high powered autonomous unit inside the party to discuss party ideology, finalise its election manifesto, review annually public policies/government performance vis-a-vis its ideology, and meet annually to present its views (for example, British Labour Party has such provisions.
Indirect measures are designed to reduce scope for patronage and expand opportunities of name recognition for party leaders through public service. These include:
*Restoring neutrality of civil service which has eroded significantly since 1971.
*Making parliamentary committees more powerful and active, which has the potential for building expertise, generate more name recognition and establish a tradition of fighting for principles among party leaders.
*Making provision for participation of outside experts in the relevant party activities and developing expertise and party spoke person among party leaders in specific subject areas.
*Drastically reducing the number of ministries to a maximum 25 by combining related ministries into compact ones, which will reduce the need for coordination, improve decision making and policy and program execution, and significantly temper the greed and competition among parliamentarians for becoming ministers.
Making laws and regulations is no substitute to effective implementation, which Bangladesh needs most urgently. We have built up a tradition of being long on talk and painfully short on action. In the context of reform, it is all more important that more intensive focus be given on execution to ensure that what has been put in laws and regulations is put into practice in real life.
Professor A.T. Rafiqur Rahman teaches at the City University of New York.