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Cover Story

Making Parliament Effective

Aasha Mehreen Amin, Mustafa zaman Ahmede Hussain and Shamim Ahsan

Bangladesh is about to step into its 35th year of being an independent nation. But it is a birthday that gives rise to mixed feelings. Of course we celebrate this day that marks our freedom from a fascist rule but it is also a reminder of all the vows our leaders have broken over these three and a half decades.

Immediately after its independence came the enactment of a liberal constitution under which the first elections were held. But the first four stormy years ended in disappointment, tragedy and disillusionment; the people of this nation faced a stifling period of military rule that had cast an ominous shadow on the glory of freedom. But the restoration of democracy in 1991 after about a two-decade long autocracy and military rule brought back the hope that finally our country was about to become the nation it was meant to be. In those early months of 1991 as the autocratic Ershad bowed down to a popular movement and handed over power to Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed-led caretaker government, political analysts declared what they termed the beginning of a new era, the democratic era. The common people started to have rosy dreams of a prosperous and peaceful future. Over the next 15 years those hopes have grown into a deep-seated disappointment.

Indeed we have got democracy, but it leaves a lot to be desired. We have also got a parliament, but if the last 15 years is anything to go by, the parliament has apparently failed to live up to people's expectation. In a parliamentary democracy the parliament is supposed to represent the people and be the centre of all activities. Experience has shown that it has mostly been bypassed and ignored by all the three successive governments since '91. In theory, the parliament provides the means to make the government accountable to people through their representatives, the Members of Parliament. In practice, it has played the role of silent spectator to the ruling party's mountainous corruption and fetish of squashing the opposition. Successive governments have used the parliament as a rubber stamp, reducing it to just a formality without any real worth.

So is there a way to revive the parliament and make it work for the people?

The Parliament over the last one and a half decades has passed a number of good laws the foremost being the restoration from Presidential to Parliamentary form of government; it took place in 1991. In the recent past laws have been passed, including paving the way for incorporating women in the lowest tier of the government, that is union parishad, making laws against environment pollutants such as polythene and banning two stroke three wheelers. While framing laws is the principal task of the parliament, it is also supposed to be the centre of all activities. Issues of all national importance that directly or indirectly concern the common people of the country are supposed to be discussed and debated here. But there are many such crucial issues that have been continuously ignored in parliamentary debates: education, population growth, corruption in general or upsurge in religious militancy, the near simultaneous bomb attacks in some 500 spots all over the country, the gruesome grenade attack on the AL on August 21 that killed 22 AL leaders and activist including Ivy Rahman and maimed scores, the murder of former finance minister SASM Kibria along with four others in Sylhet, price hike of essentials, acute fertiliser crisis, electricity, gas and water crisis, Monga. The list is endless. We would be hard-pressed to identify an important topic of genuine public interest that has been debated in parliament.

Representation of women has always been a sore issue. The thirty reserved seats have been increased to forty-five reserved seats for women and they are merely ornamental; women MPs are candidates chosen by their respective parties and have little significance politically besides adding to the party's number of seats in parliament.

Salahuddin Quader Choudhury, BNP MP

In a parliamentary democracy, the three main organs-- the executive, the parliament and the judiciary-- are supposed to be independent and maintain a kind of check and balance. While the government works through its executive branch, the parliament mainly oversees the actions of the executive and the judiciary is the final arbiter that explains the constitution if a conflict arises between the other two.

But the parliament is apparently failing to do this balancing act. Mahfuz Anam Editor and Publisher of The Daily Star, believes that the constitution itself has made the executive branch overly powerful.

Jatya Party (Ershad) MP G M Quader could not agree more. "There is a big contradiction in our constitution; Article 55 (3) says that the cabinet will be collectively responsible or accountable to the parliament. So the two functions of the parliament are law making and making the government accountable to the people." Article 70 (1), however, stipulates that no parliament member, once elected from a party can vote against the decision of the party. If this is done the Member of Parliament will lose his or her membership. Explains Quader: "A government is formed by majority vote; first the prime minister is elected by the members and the party which has the maximum number of members will decide who will be prime minister who will then form the government. So the treasury bench members have to support government actions in the parliament all the time unless they want to risk their membership. So the parliament loses the strength to control the government."

"Similarly if there is any law that has been drafted by the government", says Quader, "the MPs belonging to that party are bound to support it."

According to Quader the passing of laws in the parliament is just a formality. This is because it is ultimately the government MPs (who hold the majority seats) who decide on what bill will be passed and the parliament cannot stop any law or even make correction. In fact many bills brought from the Treasury Bench and Opposition that would have benefited the public, are ultimately squashed by the government simply because the government does not want it.

This article puts the parliament in a catch-22 situation says Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, a BNP MP and Advisor to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs.

"In the absence of this rule, democracy is at the risk of being jeopardised; if the threat of this article was not there, vested quarters might have hatched conspiracies by buying MPs. But the article, at the same time, hinders the parliament's growth as an institution independent of petty party interests," remarks Chowdhury. He thinks, as this article does not let the members speak their heart, many MPs, fearful of their leaders' wrath, follow party decisions blindly. "Some of them are in an obscene competition to please the leadership," he says.

The constitution, on the other hand, holds the government collectively responsible to the parliament, which consists of MPs from both side of the floor. "Thus government party members are also given the responsibility by the constitution to shoulder the responsibility of making the government accountable-- they have to ask questions or even name and shame the party in power. That is how it is in all developed democracies," Quader says. He cites the example of when Prime Minister Tony Blair declared war in Iraq many of his party members in parliament voted against him. "Sometimes the opposition members supports the decision of the government," he says, "this is the way our parliament should have been working."

Suranjit Sengupta, AL MP

Veteran AL parliamentarian Suranjit Sen Gupta feels that democracy is more of a faith than a compulsion. "It is the highest form of political culture where tolerance and mutual respect is the norm," he elaborates. As for the reason why the parliament--the epicenter of democracy -- is not functioning the way it should. He believes that it is the lack of commitment to the system by the concerned political parties that is playing havoc with the political culture. "The system has to be placed over the political leadership. It is the partisan attitude that mars the overall political culture. In Bangladesh politicians are committed to power rather than the system. What we need is a political practice over a long period of time that will eventually lead to such commitment to the system," he argues. He feels that there are few sacred tenets that are prerequisite for such democratic mindset. "The commitment to the 'rule of law', 'sovereignty of the people', 'sanctity of the constitution', and 'respect for the democratic institutions' such as parliament, judiciary, press, etc. The political parties too need to function democratically. All these come into play towards having a functional parliament, which we do not have in this country," concludes Suranjit.

He traces back to the root of all evils. He points out the fact that many of the country's political parties came into being only when the subsequent army generals wanted a launch-pad for their political career. "The country is sharply divided into two factions, one that stands for democratic tradition and the other that consists of the parties that sprouted under the unconstitutional, unethical umbrella of dictatorships," he argues. He hastens to add that the only way to ensure a functional parliament would be to ensure free and fair election, participation of all political parties, adopting an electoral system on the basis of consensus. "Only than the party that bags the majority of votes will be able to occupy the treasury bench and the party that failed to gain majority will hold the place of the opposition and will play their respective roles," he says.

What compounds the imbalance of power is the culture of boycott of the parliament by the opposition; in fact both the major parties, when they sit on the left side indulge in this bad habit of boycotting the parliament.

While the opposition is supposed to make the government answer for its action in the parliament their absence, Mahfuz Anam says, allows the government to get away virtually with anything.

The opposition's absence does not let the parliament perform its role as a watchdog, allowing the government to run the house according to their whim.

The constitution ensures that the executive is very strong structurally as it is; the continuous boycott of the opposition serves only to strengthen the executive.

"The opposition has undermined its voters by boycotting the parliament for so long" says Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury. "Whether they have 56 seats or 136 seats in the parliament, they got a huge percentage of votes in the last elections. But instead of letting their voters' voice heard, they have let them down."

About the opposition's allegation that they are not allowed to speak at the House, Chowdhury says, "This is a carry over situation from late Humayun Rashid Chowdhury (Speaker 1996-2001). He was so biased towards the treasury bench that he would hardly look at the left side where we, the member of the opposition, used to sit. Unlike the incumbent Speaker, Rashid had to deal with a bigger opposition party."

After their prolonged disappearing act, the main opposition, however, has come to the floor last month. Chowdhury thinks it is a very positive sign that the opposition has come back to the floor. "I don't think it has happened just like that. There must have been a natural dynamics behind it-- We as politicians were under pressure from people to make democracy functional.

"Even when they were not coming to the parliament they were very much active in the committees, which did not happen last time. Both the parties have realised that unless we demonstrate stability we won't be able to sustain economic growth; that at the end of the day verbal gymnastics do not deliver," says Chowdhury.

The judiciary, the other pillar of the state, is not in great shape either. "The lower judiciary is directly under the law ministry," says Mahfuz Anam, "the higher judiciary is theoretically or constitutionally independent, but through the process of appointment of judges to the High Court and Supreme Court the executive is again using its influence. There is a norm that the Prime Minister, also the chief executive of the state, would consult the Chief Justice while appointing the judges. But there is no way to figure out if the PM really consulted the Chief Justice or if the PM did whatever she has actually wanted to do. Consulting the Chief Justice and following his recommendation is not binding on the PM while the Chief Justice also does not speak in public about these issues. So it remains a blurry area."

The role of the speaker is a prerequisite to the effective functioning of the parliament. Anam points out that the speaker has a dual identity. Firstly, he belongs to a party and he has won the election with his party's ticket. At the same time, the speaker is also the guardian, the keeper of the house. As a speaker he has to conduct the parliament neutrally. But in our country, says Anam, the speaker cannot get out of his party identity. "Even after assuming the office of the speaker he continues to be loyal to the party he belongs whereas his loyalty should be to the house he is running," says Anam. "The culture in our country has been that the speaker has opted more to wear the hat of the party from which he comes rather than the hat of the speaker. Now, the speaker's partiality to the ruling party is bound to hurt the parliament's role as the watchdog over the government activities."

G. M. Quader, JP MP

So how can the speaker play a more neutral role? One way, which is practiced in some countries, is the speaker after he/she becomes the speaker can resign from his party, Anam says. But then this solution also has its drawbacks. "If the speaker dissociates himself with the party what happens when the next election comes?" asks Anam, "In fact if the speaker nurtures aspiration to fight the next election it is very unlikely that he would be able to act neutrally even after he resigns from his party. Why should he be disloyal and risk his second chance of becoming an MP?"

There is a good solution to this problem too. "If all the political parties mutually agree that they would not field any candidate in the constituency from where the speaker stands and thereby guarantee his re-election, the speaker may very well act neutrally," Anam says, adding that a number of democratic countries in fact practice this.

G M Quader has his own view about how to ensure the neutrality of the speaker. He says the speaker should be elected through two-third or three-fourth majority so that at least there will be a need for votes from MPs of other parties. "Moreover, the speaker should be ensured a second term" says Quader, "so that he doesn't have to worry about losing his party position or constituency".

The parliament standing committees, the business advisory committee as well as the public expenditure committee can play a vital role to make a parliament effective. In many democratic countries the chairmanship of these very powerful committees go to the opposition, once again to make accountable to the parliament. But in our case the chairs are being occupied by ruling party members, which in turn is again reinforcement of the executive branch, Anam explains. In this way at every stage it is the executive branch that rules supreme and more significantly remains unaccountable. The means that should work in theory as check and balance over the executive branch are in reality only making it infinitely powerful.

"The government is always trying to control the standing committee," says G M Quader, " the majority members of the standing committee are from the government party so the government makes sure that they do not dig out any irregularities of the government".

The parliamentary committee system, which has been established first in 1979, says Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, is the first such system in South Asia. He believes the MPs have taken serious interest in how the government functions and so far these committees have performed, to a commendable extent, the job of a vigilant watchdog.

Standing committees should be made more functional, says Chowdhury. "There is a serious power crisis in the country; students are studying under candle-light to sit for the first public examinations of their lives. Somebody must be held accountable. Why can't the concerned committee summon the minister and the energy secretary to know what has gone amiss? Suppose they tell you that a project has been delayed or the planning commission has not given clearance, call the planning secretary or the planning minister or the finance minister and fix it.

"If the committees had performed like this, things would have been a lot different."

Obviously the role of the Members of Parliament determines the health of the parliament. While their primary task is to formulate and pass laws in practice, MPs are more concerned about pleasing their constituencies to ensure re-election. That in itself may not be considered a huge transgression given the culture of our politics; but what is worrisome is the level of corruption many MPs may indulge in.

G M Quader says that this is true of only ruling party MPs. "They are given lots of irregular and irrelevant jobs that serve personal or party interest. MPs decide what tenders will go at what price, estimates will be manipulated-- a two-crore project may become a 22-crore taka project if they decide. They will decide who will also drop the tender so that members can make comparative statements that says these are the tenders and this is the lowest bidder so in the case of any corruption case later, all the papers will be in order and nobody will know if -two-crore taka project has become a 22-crore taka project,"Quader alleges.

The Presence of the opposition is crucial for the Parliament to carry out its function as a watch dog.

He says that most development work is carried out this way with hefty paybacks to various quarters. That is why, he thinks, these types of governments are always talking about development.

The members should not involve themselves in any activities other than legislative agrees Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury. "Because the MPs have got involved in extra-legislative activities the entire local governance is falling apart. There is a serious lacuna in our system: Development has become too Dhaka-centric; Union Parishad buildings have turned into places where people tie up their goats as most UP chairmen live in the nearby town and do not care to attend the office.

But according to GM Quader, many government MPs interfere with other official procedures such as promotions, transfers and appointments: "They are openly making money; if you want to be a primary teacher even if you are not qualified or if you want to be qualified just give money and it is done. There are different rates for police constable, peon, school teacher etc. This is true of dealerships too. Why do you think there is a fertilizer crisis? Because all distributors and everybody concerned are being controlled by government party people."

"Unless and until MPs' legislative prowess is developed they are bound to be involved in the business of wheat and rice. People, on the other hand, are not aware that an MP's job is to make laws, not to solve the problems that they face in their everyday life," Chowdhury says. He believes that even many MPs are not aware of their own duties and responsibilities; "One will not find even a dozen MPs in the parliament library."

GM Quader says, "MPs like myself, who are in the opposition, we don't have anything to do in our constituencies. At most we will discuss certain issues with the local officials about people's sufferings…When I come to the parliament I try to project everything I have seen wrong and what needs to be done," says Quader.

"Political leadership of this country," says Chowdhury, "has to take serious decision to decentralise the government otherwise charges of centralised corruption and nepotism will increase."

Quader adds that since the respective government departments have all the logistics to carry out all development work and therefore there is little for MPs or ministers to do, "they should just see that the rules and procedures are followed or not."

"Before democracy has been established power used to be centre on one individual; now that power has been taken hostage by 300 people is not a healthy sign," says Chowdhury. He admits that there is a big gap between what he calls the expectations and reality.

Though in all the presidential speeches, the heads of the state have always called the MPs to make the parliament the centre of all political activities, Chowdhury does not think the MPs have paid any heed to it. He laid the parliament's failure in becoming the centre of all political activities on the MPs: "Our ministers announce government policies at press conferences, whereas it should be done in the floor. Opposition does the same. Parliament should be the epicentre of democracy"

During both the AL and BNP rule, the Parliament has remained ineffective

"Had the treasury and opposition members done otherwise, the parliament's importance would have rocketed. PROs, not ministers, should give press briefing. Parliament has to be informed about policy decisions first." Without naming anyone he says, There are a minister and an adviser who cannot sleep at night if they do not deliver a sermon (Khutba) on each day on television. Ministership is not a Talukdari system that the Mughal ruler has given you a few bighas of land and after that it is all yours.

"We have got a minister who carries only three things in his briefcase: letters of appreciation from the World Bank, IMF and ADB. World Bank or IMF is not my voter, who the hell cares if the World Bank praises you or not. It is more important to know if our farmers are getting the right prices for their crops or not, or whether the supply of diesel and fertiliser is adequate," he says.

Missed Opportunity
According to Center for Policy Dialogue the National Parliament is seen as the most ineffective organisation in the country. Data derived by Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) in its research on Parliament also endorses this discouraging picture.

Unscheduled Discussion
In the 11th session of the 8th national assembly, a total of 7 hours 52 minutes 59 seconds were spent in point of order and discussion of unscheduled issues, which accounts for 6.3% of the total work time. 10.08 hours or 11.9% of the total work time during the 12th session, and 23 minutes or for 4.2% of the total time in the 13th session, 2.36 hours or 9.4 percent was lost during the 14th session.

Meetings of Parliamentary Standing Committees on Different Ministries
Rule 248 of the working rules says "… each standing committee will meet at least once a month…". From 2001 to the 13th session, which means up to 16th September, 2004 only four committees have had more than 10 meetings. Among them, the standing committee for the Ministry of Law has performed best with 31 meetings during the period. Standing committees on four ministries have had five meetings. During January-August 2004, standing committees on six ministries have had only one meeting and those on eight ministries have had no meetings at all.

Time wasted for Quorum
During the 11th session of the 8th national assembly, on an average, a little more than 43 minutes was wasted every day. During the 12th session a total of 19 hours 15 minutes were wasted in 25 working days, that is 46.2 minutes per day. 1.33 hours was wasted in four working days during the 13th session, that is 23.25 minutes a day. A total of 4.02 hours or 22 minutes per day was lost in the 14th session.

Financial Loss for lack of Quorum
It costs Tk 15,000 per minute when the House is in session. At this rate, the money wasted for the lack of quorum during the 11th session was Tk 2 crore 77 lakh 65 thousand. Tk 1 crore 73 lakh 25 thousand during the 12th session, Tk 13 lakh 95 thousand during the 13th session and Tk 36 lakh 30 thousand was wasted during the 14th session. A total of Tk 5 crore 1 lakh 15 thousand was wasted from the 11th to the 14th session for the lack of quorum.

Cost of Party Praise, Criticism of the Opposition Party and Irrelevant Discussions
A member can utter a maximum of 160 words on an average in the national assembly per minute. This means that the cost of each word uttered is Tk 100. During the eighth National Assembly of 2004, party praise, criticism of the opposition party, and irrelevant discussions were done 1,565 times. To speak so many times, if the speaker used only one word each time, it would cost Tk 1 lakh 56 thousand 500 at the rate deduced above.


What is the way out then? First and foremost, Mahfuz Anam says emphatically, the opposition, no matter how many MPs they have got, must never boycott the parliament. The speaker, moreover, will have to run the parliament neutrally. "Chairmanship of the very crucial committees and standing committees on different ministries, should go to the opposition," he says. "The recommendations of the standing committees should be discussed in the full house. A minimum number of opposition notices must be discussed in the house. Opposition members should be given away at least 50 percent time if not 100 percent of the PM's question-answer session."

"The parliament is a place to talk so we should be allowed to talk in whatever subject we think is relevant," says GM Quader. "We are people's representatives and are in parliament to vent their grievances."

"Media should have full access to all parliamentary activities, standing committee meetings included," says Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury; he terms the ban on television camera as a stupid decision. He thinks the parliament should have its own multimedia unit and a committee consisting members from both sides of the floor should administer its activities.

"Rule of procedure has to be amended," says Suranjit Sengupta. "It should be made into a rule that no legislation should be made without any public debate. Order of the day has to be fixed by mutual consent of the two chief whips. And lastly a ban on the boycott of parliament which would never be considered to be an optional institution," he says.

Mahfuz Anam, Editor, Publisher, The Daily Star

Quader who once advocated an amendment to Article 70 (1) so that in some cases members can vote against a party decision if he or she wants to, now feels that this article should be abolished altogether. "Parliamentary members should be allowed to move around freely and say what they want to say"

The culture of politics itself has developed in an unsavoury way. "Politics is controlled by black money," says Quader. "Money and muscle determine election results which is why we are rehabilitating hoodlums and smugglers; in our election system a good, honest person can never win elections."

Our leaders who hold the highest seats of power are morally bound to serve the people who have entrusted them with this privilege. The parliament is the most important institution that can bring about real change in the quality of life of the people of this country, most of whom are denied basic human rights. The parliament must be allowed to function as a neutral body that holds the government accountable to the people and allows all voices to be heard. Only then can it claim to be a house that represents the people. After 35 years of independence it is the least we the ordinary citizens of the country can expect from our leaders.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006