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Volume 3 Issue 7 | July 2008



Original Forum Editorial

Month in Review: Bangladesh
Month in Review: International
Balance of Power-- Rehman Sobhan
The Tentative Asian Tiger? --Faisal Salahuddin
Changing Times-- Samir Asaf
Can Our Shipbuilders Make It Alone?--Mahboob Ahmed
Photo Feature -- Children of the Docks --K M Asad
Environmental Blues-- Kakoli Prodhan
Kitty Hawk for India?-- JMir Mahfuz Rahman
The Puzzle of the World Economy-- Forrest Cookson
Nepal's Elections: Before and After -- Deb Mukharji
The Grandest Questions-- M. Amirul Alam and M. Zahidul Alam


Forum Home


Balance of Power

Rehman Sobhan cautions against an imperial presidency

munem wasif/ driknews Munir uz Zaman/ driknews

There seems to now be some promise for a fruitful dialogue and a clearer roadmap to elections in December. However, part of the political equation still seems unresolved, so there are still quite a few unexploded landmines to be cleared before we reach the end of the road. I will not speculate on these issues until the current situation is more mature.

One issue, however, that can be explored both through public discussion as well as in the ongoing dialogues, is the issue of the balance of power in the post-election period. There is a rather confused discussion underway about some further constitutional interventions to bring about greater political balance between the president and the prime minister. This, for Bangladesh, seems to be a rather futile debate because it has, off and on, been going on for half a century. The debate has, at least twice, in 1972 and 1991, been resolved in favour of a strong parliamentary system and a symbolic president.

Neither Pakistan nor Bangladesh have ever had any good experience with strong presidents, who have inevitably tended to assume absolute power and treat parliament as a subordinate agency. Up to 1971 the struggle against a powerful and unaccountable president was expected to be resolved through a strong, freely elected parliament headed by a prime minister. This was the essence of the 1972 constitution. But this phase lasted for less than 2 years till the passage of the 4th Amendment in January 1975. From 1975 to 1991 we had been exposed to a president with absolute power.

Munir uz Zaman

The removal of an unaccountable president, through a mass movement in 1990, should logically have led us to a restoration of the parliamentary system. However, for those with short memories, which seems to include most people, Begum Khaleda Zia, once elected to power in the March 1991 elections, was not at all keen to amend the constitution and restore the parliamentary system. She was more interested to continue with a strong presidency. Her ambitions were frustrated by the then president, Shahabuddin Ahmed, who had, as the head of a caretaker government, given Bangladesh one of the fairest elections in our history. President Shahabuddin pointed out to Khaleda Zia and her colleagues that the 1991 elections were contested under the assumption that Bangladesh would return to a parliamentary system. This, indeed, was the commitment of the major political parties to the electorate. If Khaleda Zia wanted to resile from this position, now that her party was elected to office, and retain the strong presidency, then Shahabuddin threatened to dissolve the Parliament and call fresh elections. The BNP could then campaign on the basis of retaining the presidential system and if they obtained an electoral mandate for this Khaleda Zia could become president, presumably after contesting a presidential election.

The BNP was reluctant to expose itself to another election fought on the mandate of a strong presidency. They agreed to join hands with the Awam League in Parliament to repeal the 4th amendment, and Khaleda Zia took office as prime minister. However, the autocratic impulses which had inspired her to retain the presidential system, extended into her exercise of power as prime minister. The prime minister transformed herself into a president in all but name, building a strong secretariat in the Prime Minister's Office, where all key decisions in her government were referred. As a result, the Parliament, which had been restored with its powers, remained ineffectual. Here, the then opposition, led by the Awami League, helped to keep Parliament ineffectual by walking out of the house on every possible occasion and boycotting the house for long periods of time. For the five years of 1991-96, very little of consequence was discussed or decided in Parliament, and all powers were appropriated by the presidential prime minister.

Tragically, this tradition, set in motion in the first tenure of the BNP, was perpetuated by the Awami League. This time the BNP played their role in boycotting Parliament. To the credit of the Awami League they did make some efforts to empower Parliament by establishing the Prime Minister's Question Hour and activating the parliamentary committees. But the BNP boycotted Prime Minister's Question Hour, while their long boycotts of the Jatiyo Sangshad weakened the effectiveness of the parliamentary committees. Once again the PMO became the centre of power in the then government, and we witnessed another 5 years of a chief executive and government with little or no accountability to Parliament.

The return of the BNP-led alliance to office in 2001, with weak representation of the opposition in Parliament, elevated the PMO into a virtual monarchy. Long boycotts of the Parliament by the opposition, the refusal of the ruling party to give any opportunity to the opposition to ask questions in the Prime Minister's Question Hour and the virtual dysfunction of the parliamentary committees transformed the Parliament into a rubber stamp institution. Thus, for a period of 15 years and three elected governments, we have been witness to an all-powerful prime minister, an unaccountable executive, and a dysfunctional parliament. It is hardly surprising that governance has degenerated and corruption has flourished.

After this long exposure to an ineffective parliament, whether under a presidential or parliamentary system, it is somewhat bizarre to be arguing that we now need to solve the problems of a malfunctioning democracy by strengthening the president's powers and putting in place an unelected supra-body in the form of a National Security Council.

The Pakistan experience, which is being enacted before our eyes today, should have educated us to the un-workability of a duality of power between a president and parliament. In recognition of the un-workability of this arrangement the Pakistanis are seeking to amend the constitution to clip the powers of the president, which have invariably been used to frustrate the electoral mandate. A similar dyarchy of power in Nepal between the king and parliament has culminated in the abolition of the monarchy.

What we should be looking for today in Bangladesh is to return to the letter and spirit of the 1973 constitution by restoring the power of the Parliament. It is the Parliament which should be the real source of imposing checks and balances on a potentially autocratic prime minister, and to hold the government accountable for all its deeds of omission and commission. The central issue in the ongoing dialogue should, thus, be on how to strengthen the institution of Parliament and to make it into an effective instrument of political accountability for the prime minister and the government. It is, after all, the Parliament which actually elects the prime minister and can vote him or her out of office.

Any move to strengthen the Parliament will have widespread political support from all parties. Most politicians have legitimate expectations to be elected to Parliament, but very few expect to become a minister, and only one among them may aspire to be elected prime minister. Thus, most politicians have a vested interest in reestablishing a balance of power between parliament and an absolutist prime minister. All MPs, past and future, deeply resent their impotence in parliament. These MPs have responded to their dysfunctional role in Parliament by moving downwards to fill the vacuum in local governance by appropriating the missing role of upazilla chairman, thereby making our system of local government even more ineffective. Rather than continuing to frustrate the revival of a strong system of local government, MPs may be encouraged to refocus their attention on Parliament through the promise of a move to restore Parliament to the paramount role in the polity, which was the intention of the 1972 constitution.


In the light of our political realities, we should spend less time tinkering, yet again, with the constitution, and spend more time making the present constitution work. The dialogues should, thus, invest much more time on how to strengthen the role of parliament, how to ensure that people who are elected will be of a calibre to play an active role in such parliament, and how to make these elected members accountable at all times to their electorate.

It will further require a variety of procedural changes on how parliament functions, such as the empowerment of parliamentary committees with the power to enforce compliance for their decisions on the executive. It would also need a further amendment to Article 70 so as to restore a degree of autonomy to MPs to vote to their conscience, at least on parliamentary motions where the survival of the government is not at stake. Such issues will need to be discussed separately in more detail.

Within the current realities of power, one way to really strengthen Parliament, vis a vis the government and office of the prime minister, is to ensure a genuine separation of powers between the two institutions. One way to do so would be to ensure that the leader of the house would not be the prime minister. At the same time, the leader of the house should be politically powerful, perhaps the most powerful person in his or her respective party. This was the model adopted in India after the last election. The most powerful person in the ruling party, Sonia Gandhi, declined to become prime minister, even though it was her charisma which played an instrumental role in the electoral victory of her party. Sonia Gandhi chose, instead, to remain as the leader of the house in the Lok Sabha and the president of the Congress Party, leaving the job of the prime minister to a respected and honest technocrat, Dr. Manmohan Singh.

This arrangement has strengthened the parliament and made the prime minister much more accountable to both Parliament and the ruling party than had been the case in the past. Then, the prime minister, whether in the person of Sonia's mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, or her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, was all-powerful as leader of the government, house and party. We should not be too naïve in thinking that this arrangement does not have its problems, including the weakened authority of the prime minister. But if our goal is to have a system of checks and balance, better that this balance be established within the framework of the constitution, between the prime minister and Parliament, than through the introduction of some untested new source of power, which may require further constitutional amendments.

In the prevailing circumstances, if the two all-powerful netris do expect to make an enduring contribution to strengthening the democratic process, they would do well to invest their full authority behind re-empowering Parliament and also strengthening the democratic roots of their respective parties. A parliament with the two netris sitting on the front benches, as leader of the house and/or as party leader, holding the prime minister and government accountable, at all times, to the people's mandate may well be a more creative and workable solution to the strengthening of democracy and the improvement of governance in the days ahead.

In the final analysis, it will be up to the two netris to decide on what role they would aspire to serve their parties and the country more effectively. For the netri whose party loses the election, to be a leader of the parliamentary party in a re-empowered parliament would obviously be a much-preferred option. However, for the netri whose party is likely to form the government after the elections, to forego the option of serving as prime minister would be a difficult choice.

The PM enjoys substantive power. The power to be exercised by the leader of the house remains as yet untested, even if such a leader may be the politically most powerful person in the country. Such a leader, who would swap a tested for an untested source of power for the noble goal of strengthening democracy, would have to be a statesman of exceptional courage. Yet, who can argue that in this moment of historic transition, ordinary leadership will not be enough. The nation awaits an extraordinary leader to serve in extraordinary times.

Rehman Sobhan is Chairman, Editorial Board, Forum.

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