<%-- Page Title--%> Politics <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 140 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

January 30, 2004

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The Question of Enlarged Parliament

Mustafa Zaman

BNP at last is ready to go slow on their plan to have an enlarged legislature. Before leaving for Indonesia, the PM and her contingent of lawmakers have decided to put their foot on the brake, though only for the time being. As it is a matter of national importance, and needs wide support, they have judiciously opted out of the "urgent mode" that they found themselves for the last two weeks. The appreciating nods from few intellectually inclined handymen did not have the lethal effect that we may have anticipated. The step, though seems unexpected, certainly shows judiciousness on the part of the government. Last Wednesday's fait accompli, as a Daily Star editorial refers to the decision that the BNP parliamentary body reached on going slow on amendment, however, did not put a seal on the issue.

Apprehensions on the part of the experts ran high as a decision like this was almost placed on the highest table without considering the ramification on the national coffer and on the government as a whole. What spurred the present government to buck up in favour of this amendment is open to guesses, but what made them think twice about going ahead with it can largely be attributed to the relay of conclusions drawn by Public Expenditure Review Commission (PERC).

Perc's ominous appearance in the national arena with their revealing reports has saved a lot of arguments, and stopped the coalition in power on its course to take the plunge. The funny thing is, while Perc was recommending reduction in the number of ministries to cut down on expenditure, the BNP-led alliance in power seemed all set for moving a bill at the National Assembly to increase the number of legislature from 300 to 450. This would have included 50 seats for women, who would be elected by the elected lawmakers.

Meanwhile, during the whole farce, the experts found themselves in two solidly diverged groups, one that welcomed the idea and the other that found it preposterous. The former lauded the move, saying that it might strengthen democratic practices. A former secretary even proposed the figure 464. He thought it would be unfitting if it exceeded this number, as the assembly house designed by Luis Khan would not allow that many seats.

The veteran journalist Ataus Samad told the daily Prothom Alo that it is a move that needs a referendum. The consensus from the electorate is what he thought would be a must before bringing about an amendment in the constitution. He also elucidated an aspect of our system that one may call 'a crucial deformity', if one is willing not to settle for euphemism. Samad brought into light the present state of the local governments throughout the country. The union parishads, with which the developmental works lie, should have a full reign over their activities, Samad believes. With the MPs meddling with every decision made at the Union Parishad level, which is the lowest tier of the government, what will be the outcome of having more of the meddling agents? As for having more of them in the parliament , one must ask, since when did democracy be defined by number of lawmakers?

With the Union Parishads in a shambles and the election process constantly being monopolised by party henchmen, what would result in bulking out in number. The PM levelled it as strengthening of the legislature. When the parliament, to this day, remains dysfunctional, what would a change in number would accrue?

The main opposition has been touting in favour of the Proportional Representation system that allows any party to have a representation at the assembly determined by the percentage of vote gained in the national election. In the face of the proposed increase in seats, the opposition did nothing much but sneer at it all. Hasina, the leader of the opposition in the parliament was, as usual, acerbic. The day after the government disclosed their willingness as well as determination to increase the seats, she said, "The alliance is conspiring to avert attention of the people when the 15-point demand that has created enthusiasm across the country."

Whether her claim has any merit or not, the increase of seats certainly seems an issue that has been created out of the blue. Though in the election manifesto of BNP, one of the promises was a larger parliament, yet after having dodged all the other issues that figured in that manifesto, the fulfilment of one and only promise like this one seems uncalled for. To whose benefit would the parliament be fattened? It certainly would not have any bearing on the problems that ail this nation. The overbearing presence of the MPs are proverbial. Most constituencies have been turned into hotbeds of crime, nepotism and power play courtesy of the elected representatives. While the electorate is being seen as mere pawns in the hands of political heavyweights, the political culture of fear-mongering and exploitation is thriving. Though Saifur Rahman, the minister for finance and planning feels otherwise. He reportedly said, "increased parliament seats will not worsen the political chaos, as sharp division in parliament is just part of the political culture and it has nothing to do with how many public representatives are there."

The question of sharp division is not the issue here, but politics of persecution is. When the party who gets the majority is often seen in the role of overbearing giant, a bully who set out to efface any trace of opposition in the form of opinion or political party, the increase may only contribute to the cultivation of this Big Brotherly attitude.

In country where transparency of the government is virtually nil, and the actions of representatives of the people always go unchecked and the word accountability has no place in governance, the idea to expand the legislature is as absurd as it is imposed.



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