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      Volume 10 |Issue 45 | December 01, 2011 |


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Current Affairs

Lost in the Streets


The lone independent lawmaker Fazlul Azim deserves kudos for the role he played in the House on November 23. He did not let the government's move to place the controversial bill seeking to split Dhaka City Corporation (DCC) go unopposed.

“People of Dhaka city have already spoken against the government's move. I urge the government to take back the bill," Azim said, registering his voice against the move to place the bill. His was the lone voice against the bill to split the DCC.

He was also the lone voice in parliament on June 30 against the “yes” votes of 291 ruling alliance lawmakers favouring the constitution amendment bill that abolished the caretaker government system. Azim voiced a loud "no" against an uproar of "yes" by treasury bench MPs.

One may disagree with Azim in many cases. But in both the cases, Azim tried to perform the true and basic role of a lawmaker by making efforts to embody the will of the people. His voices were put in the parliamentary proceedings, and the future generation will find at least the lone voice in the House against the government's unilateral decisions.

There is no doubt that the majority of the people, who do not belong to any partisan politics, had opposed abolishing of the caretaker government system, and they are now opposing the government move to split the DCC.

Does protesting a bill ouside of the parliament reflect the true function of MPs? Photo: Amran Hossain

But why was there no other voice in the parliament against the government move? Where were other opposition MPs on June 30 and November 23? Where was the main opposition BNP? Where was Opposition Leader Khaleda Zia? Why didn't the BNP-led opposition lawmakers raise their voice against the government moves to abolish caretaker government systems and to split the DCC?

They did not do it or they could not do it because they were not in the House. They have been boycotting the parliament for their own partisan interests. By waging war of words, they have been protesting cancellation of the caretaker government and the government's latest move to split the DCC. But they are doing these outside the parliament. So, does their protest reflect the true functions of MPs?

What should they have done? In a modern democracy, the primary function of MPs are to embody the will of the people as the parliament is the supreme political institution through which people seek to realise their aspirations, urges and expectations.

Parliament also acts as a forum for ventilation of the grievances of the people, their difficulties and their passions, anxieties and frustrations.

The other cardinal roles and functions of a parliament in an ideal parliamentary democratic polity are to form or end a government, legislate, hold the government accountable for its actions, monitor the expenditure of public funds.

But the BNP-led opposition MPs have badly failed to embody the will of the people and to perform efficiently their cardinal functions because of their absence from the parliament. And their failure to act as a "shadow cabinet" provides the treasury bench with a very comfortable atmosphere to do anything they wish to do without facing any challenge and criticism in the House.

In the British House of Commons, the opposition party is called the "Official Opposition". British constitutional theorist, Thomas Erskine May, in his book "Parliamentary Practice", defines the opposition saying "... it is the largest minority party which is prepared, in the event of the resignation of the Government, to assume office."

Considered to be the most authoritative and influential work on parliamentary procedure and British constitutional convention, his book has become part of the uncodified constitution of the United Kingdom and as a result is sometimes called the "Parliamentary bible", acting as a rule book for parliamentarians.

In the House of Commons, the opposition leader assigns some opposition MPs to study and discuss some specific ministries' policies and criticise their activities. MPs assigned and the opposition leader collectively perform functions in a planned way as a "shadow cabinet".

"He [leader of the opposition] is a shadow Prime Minister and he has to be prepared to take up the responsibility of forming a government if his party secures a majority at an election or if the government resigns or is defeated," says MN Kaul, SL Shakdher in the book styled "Parliamentary Practice and Procedure".

But in the confrontational culture of the country's politics, politicians are now fashiosing their own model of parliamentary practices. Like previous opposition parties, the BNP led opposition in the current parliament has opted for continuing the House boycott. They have already so far boycotted 202 sittings out of total 253 sittings till the parliament's last session which was prorogued on November 29. This means that the BNP-led opposition MPs joined only 51 sittings in around last three years of the ninth parliament that began its journey on January 25, 2009.

Their poor presence in the House proceedings show how badly they performed their role as members of the opposition bench.

Their leader, Khaleda Zia, who is leading the smallest-ever opposition in parliament, joined only six sittings of the current parliament. Her reluctance to join the parliamentary proceedings is largely blamed for the opposition lawmakers' frequent House boycott.

And the present trends suggest that the opposition's House boycott will exceed the previous records if they continue the practice.

The House boycott culture was born in the fifth parliament when the then opposition Awami League started to boycott the parliament to realise their demands. The then AL lawmakers boycotted 135 out of 400 sittings of the fifth parliament.

The parliament boycott culture got a fresh impetus in the seventh parliament when the then main opposition BNP started to boycott the parliament. They boycotted 163 out of total 382 sittings of the seventh parliament, between 1996-2001.

The AL lawmakers boycotted 223 out of 373 sittings of the eighth parliament, between 2002-2006.

Prior to the beginning of the ninth parliament's journey, Opposition Leader Khaleda Zia however announced: "We will join parliament in the interest of the nation and play a constructive role in parliament."

Her announcement sparked a ray of hope of change in the pervasive culture of House boycott. Many believed they will be able to play significant role in the House to hold the government accountable and to speak for the people's interests.

The first parliament in 1973 had only seven lawmakers in the opposition and none was recognised as the leader of the opposition as they were very few in number. Nevertheless, that opposition played a very strong role to put pressure on the treasury bench to do the right thing.

The opposition benches in the fifth and seventh parliaments were strong in terms of number of lawmakers.

Regardless of the number of lawmakers in her support, Khaleda's status in parliament is just after Leader of the House and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and she has the responsibility to lead her deputies in working as a shadow cabinet.

But the BNP-led opposition lawmakers opted for boycotting the House in phases. In the first phase, they started to boycott the House proceeding since June 2009 and continued till February 2010. Remaining absent for 64 consecutive sittings, they returned on February 11 to parliament on February, 2010.

Then again began the boycott from June 2010 and returned to the House on March 16, after being out for 74 consecutive sittings. They did not stay in the House as they stormed out of the House on March 24. They have not returned to the House since then. And in the third phase they have already boycotted over 46 consecutive sittings till November 29.

Although they are boycotting the House proceedings, the opposition lawmakers are taking remunerations, allowances and enjoying all privileges without performing their duties. Being the Opposition Leader, Khaleda is enjoying the status and receiving allowances and remuneration of a cabinet minister.

Like other MPs, all of the opposition lawmakers too have 'solemnly' sworn to 'faithfully' discharge their duties and also not to allow 'personal interests' to influence discharge of those duties. But they are doing opposite things. Isn't it an unethical practice? Is it not contrary to their oath?

The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.

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