|Volume 5 Issue 11| November 2011|
Parliament and Political Parties:
SADRUL HASAN MAZUMDER suggests ways to make our parliamentary democracy more dynamic.
In a democratic society, political parties are indispensible whether recognised by the supreme law of the land or not. Parties that maintain relation with the citizens or their electorates through party platform abide by some principles and are shaped by ideologies where electoral manifesto bridges the gap between expectation and reality. Once mandated by the electorates, the party forms the government and fulfills their electoral commitments where parliament passes the legislation reflecting the promises of the party -- meeting the aspirations of the citizens. Categorised according to the legislative strength, the parties act either as government or opposition. The parliament is the highest elected representative body where the parties in real sense articulate and aggregate people's interest and translate into rule of law through rightful enforcement.
In parliamentary system the parliamentary parties have extraordinary significance because the executive is an extension of the legislature where the former remains responsible to the latter, control of respective parties over their legislators in reviewing executive actions and more importantly in running the House through the use of various legislative devices, influence of parties in nominating legislative standing committee member. In the parliamentary form of democracy, effectiveness of legislators depends on the nature and activism of the parliamentary parties to a substantive degree. Thus the basis of a functional parliament is based on contributions and functional understanding of the parliamentary parties on the rules of political and legislative venture. This is how norms, culture and conventions are developed in parliamentary democratic system.
Structure and style of practising democracy within the party, legal provisions about parliament and legislators, process of nomination during elections, management of financing mechanism and administering party discipline are vital factors which shape and control legislative behaviour of the members of parliament. Party activism, nomination of candidature during elections, and party role both in and outside the parliament are related to financial source of the party and method of party funding. In the current electoral system a sound financial base is of utmost importance for any political party or candidate. However, political parties' obtaining funds and looking for state support has relatively been a recent phenomenon especially in western democracies. In Bangladesh, the Election Commission has been advocating for regulating laws with provisions of state funding for the political parties although the Chief Election Commissioner has recently stated that it is not possible to improve quality of elections by bringing discipline in electoral expenses only.
The system of party financing mechanism as developed in the western democracies is not observed in countries like ours. Apparently political parties fund their day-to-day activities and election campaigns as voluntary associations from members' fees and donations in Bangladesh. But experiences suggest that as there is no clear-cut and transparent party financing system, political parties have indulged in obtaining funds through improper and unethical manner. Such practices are going on in the context of detrimental political competition where electoral rules including ceiling on expenditures during elections are hardly maintained. During the 2008 general elections, Bangladesh Election Commission brought the political parties under a mandatory registration system with provisions of submitting statement of election expenditure within a stipulated time but responses from the political parties were not as expected. The regulation for registration also includes submission of audit reports to Election Commission to ensure transparency in political parties' financial transaction but only 21 out of 38 registered parties maintained the rule where nine parties including main opposition BNP sought extended time for finalising the expenditure statement while other seven parties still remain careless about the said provision.
Existing nature of confrontational political culture, incessant political entanglement, vicious faces of political rivalry and lack of common understanding on the political games have been contributing to the process of making a relatively more complex political environment. Thus politics still remains confined to the corridor of power with our political class dealing with state prerogatives in exchange for positions within their respective political parties. This results in an atmosphere for the opportunists and the nouveau riche to take hold of politics where retired civil and military bureaucrats have taken advantage of the situation. Politics day by day has been smuggled by the persons with money and muscle power where the major political parties do not have any weapon to stop their entrance into or are not able to cultivate opposite culture to protect them. In the name of donations into the campaign funds of the political parties such groups are playing an instrumental role and destroying the political culture.
In absence of internal democratic practices and political schooling, political parties find hardly any problem in accepting the questionable money and falling into the cluthes of the tycoon. Such phenomenon has been repeated during the last four general elections where the party nominations were reportedly influenced by money and muscle power and politics is being gradually captured by the moneymakers. Due to the considerable entry of the political opportunists in the nomination process of the political parties, veteran politicians and old party loyalists having least money and muscle power were neglected. During the last two decades, voters of this country witnessed the rotation of faces with similar backgrounds rather than any qualitative change in the nature of representation in the national parliament. The diagram shows increasing trend of holding political spaces by businesspersons.
Effective communication between the parliamentary parties and the legislators has been found to be an important factor that contributes to legislative activism ranging from initiative to formulation of rules and enactment of laws, oversight to opposition Legislators activism within the parliament. Parliamentary Parties are meant to formulate party policy, elect legislative leadership, resolve internal party conflicts, and formulation of strategies for enactment of legislations or publicising issues of public interest. Personal competence and relationship of the Member of Parliament with his party is crucial for effective participation in legislative activism. Such competence of the legislators is of utmost importance while making quality parliamentary deliberations, overseeing the administrative malpractices both within the committees as well as on the floor which ultimately accelerates businesses in a functional parliament.
Under the current circumstances, citizens are concerned about whether the Member of Parliament can be allowed to engage in legislative activism of his/her own wisdom. To get the answer the citizen must understand what kind of independence a member of parliament really enjoys in relation to his/her party affiliation. General perception is that a legislator should be able to raise his voice or vote according to his sense of right and wrong even if it goes against his party decision. The argument is that he has been elected by the people of his constituency and he must work for the greater interest of the nation even at the cost of going beyond his party interest and should not act merely as an ordinary party activist. But increasing trend in the development of the party-system even in the matured democracies in developed countries, the members of parliament are subject to maintain strict party discipline which compels them to be loyal to the party monarchy, often forgoing his right to exercising freedom of choice and free thinking.
It can clearly be stated that parliament can never function effectively unless the relationship between a legislator and his party leadership is not characterised by two-way channel and decisions within the party are not taken through consensus in a participatory method. The parliament can never contribute substantively if the party hierarchies adopt policies without participatory discussion and impose the decision on general members -- there even remains a chance of revolt by the legislators against the party and its decisions. Different opinions in the media show that members of parliament in Bangladesh seem to be absolutely at the mercy of the party's hierarchy and operate under their directions. We are experiencing the fourth parliament in Bangladesh after the historical victory against military rule in 1990 but witnessing the same sad story where the members of parliament vote mechanically for their respective parties and have little independence.
The much talked about Article 70 of the Constitution of Bangladesh has been found to be a crucial obstacle to the freedom of members of parliament, preventing them from criticizing party decisions and legislative initiatives, even if they go against the electorate who voted for them. The major political parties who enjoyed both the treasury or opposition benches during the last four parliaments did not initiate any pragmatic approach so that the bottom-line members could participate in the party decision making process or could vote after reaching any consensual decision. Surprisingly, recent move of amending the Constitution also avoided making any sort of amendment to Article 70.
The leadership of the major political parties Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) made the parliament dysfunctional following the same traditional way of imposing the party decision over the members of parliament to frequent walk-outs, boycott and en masse resignations. Let's have a look at the scenarios:
Such practices have raised questions among the citizens about the role of the political parties and members of the parliament who were elected by the people to carry out their mandate which have to some extent degraded their status in the eye of their constituents resulting in a sense of inertia and alienation from the citizens at large. The politicians have experienced turmoil during the military-backed Caretaker Government and even after the long awaited elections in 2008, the mainstream opposition BNP has been away from the parliament leaving no opportunity to speak on behalf of their constituents. Not only that, in spite of having absolute majority in the parliament by Awami League and its Grand Alliance the parliament often failed to maintain quorum in the House. Given this scenario, the role of the political parties in strengthening the parliament cannot be an impressive one. During the ninth parliament the Parliamentary Standing Committees seemed to be functioning well but the members from the main opposition are not attending the meeting and the decisions are being taken one-sidedly. In such circumstances, the whips should play their crucial role in maintaining linkages with the parties by facilitating both a top-down and bottom-up relationship between the leadership and the general members. The role of whips should be ensured in managing the affairs of legislative business like keeping the members informed of their legislative functions, monitoring their regular attendance and organising them on legislative issues including participation in deliberations and other parliamentary business. In such a deadlock situation the Honourable Speaker should also come out of the party affiliation try to convince the opposition to come to parliament.
Democracy is not only about voting; democracy is about using voting as a means to achieve effective and meaningful change. Without institutions willing and able to carry out the people's will, the act of casting a ballot is meaningless. Clearly, Bangladesh has shown that it can organise and execute well-run elections. Like the past, in 2008 record numbers of voters turned out to vote and international and local observers applauded the way in which the polls were administered. But, following the elections, there was an immediate resumption of the boycott of Parliament by the opposition - even though the opposition party had changed. Parliament cannot be said to be functioning, despite the participation of opposition parties and much energy continues to be focused on ending the boycott. Political parties cannot play an effective and significant role in the parliament unless and until there is intra-party democracy ensuring independence of parliamentarians for legislative activism. Various devices or mechanisms should be designed in order to ensure such independence.
Sadrul Hasan Mazumder is a development activist. [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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