From the Wind of Change to a Storm of Despair
As the ninth parliament is about to go into session, the question remains, will the opposition join the assembly or continue the culture of boycott? Will the parliament be effective again?
A Ray of Hope Flickered and Disappeared
At her first news conference after winning a landslide victory in the December 29 parliamentary polls, a smiling and confident Sheikh Hasina had urged all political parties to shun the culture of vengeance and conflict in politics. "We do not believe in the politics of vengeance. We want to put an end to the politics of confrontation and present the nation with a new political culture," said Hasina, chief of the Awami League-led Grand Alliance. She also announced that she would not weigh the opposition by its seats in parliament. “I believe that in parliamentary democracy opposition is part of the government. We will uphold the opposition's roles, acknowledging positive criticism and suggestions to keep the parliament active."
Flickering hopes for an effective parliament. Photo: Star File
People lauded her speech which was also in conformity with her party's electoral pledges styled “A Charter for Change” that contributed largely to the landslide victory. A few hours before Hasina spoke at the press conference, her archrival Khaleda Zia claimed that the election was stage-managed and farcical, and so its results were not acceptable to her party.
In fact, the defeat was huge and bitter for the BNP as it never faced such a situation in its three decades old lifespan. The BNP bagged only 29 seats.The BNP delayed in taking oath, following the path of AL MPs who did the same in the 8th parliament after facing an election debacle in 2001 polls. But finally the BNP high commands changed their minds in the face of “the winds of change” in politics.
While taking the oath along with her party deputies on January 15, 2009, Khaleda announced: "We will join the parliament in the interest of the nation and play a constructive role in the parliament." BNP MPs said they would play an effective role in the House and that “they are now waiting to see if the government creates an appropriate environment for them in the parliament.”
Despite facing a humiliating defeat in the polls, BNP-led opposition MPs joined the inaugural sitting of the ninth parliament on January 25. A ray of hope flickered. The then President Iajuddin Ahmed in his speech at the inaugural sitting of the House termed the ninth Jatiya Sangsad “a Parliament for Change”.
The hope for change however got a jolt as soon as the parliament started to function. Animosity between the ruling AL and BNP ensured the death of such aspirations.
The first walk out of the ninth parliamentary session was not related to public interest. Photo: Star File
The parliament witnessed a stormy walk out of BNP-led opposition MPs on January 28, 2009, in the second sitting of the House. It had nothing to do with public interest, but because of the seating arrangement in the House. At that time the outgoing speaker allocated all the nine seats for opposition MPs in the front row, left side of the speaker's podium. But later, on bowing down before the demands of the AL, the new Speaker Abdul Hamid rearranged the seats, reducing the number of the opposition MPs in the front row to four. In protest, BNP-led opposition MPs made the walk out and started to boycott the House proceedings.
The ruling AL high command failed to demonstrate generosity to immediately overcome the seating row; rather it took the path of traditional politics to handle the main opposition BNP inside the House. AL leaders Tofail Ahmed and Kazi Zafarullah at a meeting of the AL central working committee on February 10, 2009 told PM Hasina that the people would be happier and unnecessary debate would stop if the treasury bench considered giving BNP more seats in the front row. But Hasina spoke against more front-row seats in the parliament for the BNP.
In her defence, Hasina also told Tofail and Zafarullah that all BNP “personalities” had seats in the front row and they would have been given more if they had stalwarts like M Saifur Rahman. She also pointed out that the last BNP-Jamaat led ruling alliance did not even give assassinated former finance minister Shah AMS Kibria and deceased education minister AHSK Sadeque front-row seats in the last parliament.
The following day, on February 11, 2009, PM Hasina told the parliament that the BNP lawmakers had more seats in the front row than they deserved according to their representation ratio in the House. Citing that the AL MPs were given only six seats in the front row in the last parliament by a BNP-led majority alliance, even though the AL had 58 seats in the House, the premier added, "How could they demand what they had denied us when we had been in the opposition?"
Her remarks clearly indicated that Hasina, also leader of the House, seemed to have forgotten the promises she had made at her first news conference after winning the December 29 parliamentary polls. She had opted the traditional path of politics to treat the main opposition MPs.
The ghost of confrontational culture in politics returned soon after the beginning of the ninth parliament.
Photo: Anurup Kanti Das
The seating row was somehow resolved. And the BNP-led opposition MPs returned to the House on February 23, 2009, after remaining absent from the parliament proceedings for consecutive 17 sittings.
But the seating row exposed the true character of the ruling and opposition parties, and their long animosity sneaked into the “parliament for change”. The rivalries reached such a level that it prevented them from taking a united stance during one of the biggest disasters the country faced in its history–the BDR carnage in February 2009.
Ruling and opposition MPs under the leadership of Hasina and Khaleda engaged themselves in a fiery attack on March 1 in the parliament while discussing an obituary motion of the slain BDR officials. The attack was so bitter that the motion turned into a blame game with the treasury and opposition bench lawmakers blasting each other.
In brief, this is the story of how the ghost of confrontational culture in politics returned soon after the beginning of the ninth parliament, diminishing the hope for changes.
A Storm of Despair
Reality looked gloomy after the “Parliament for change” completed its first year due mainly to the return of politics of vengeance and the failure of top politicians to honour the people's expectations for change.
President Zillur Rahman in his first address to the parliament reminded us of the truth. "The great challenge for the government now is to materialise the dream of the Charter for Change. We have to overcome this challenge by our united efforts. The political practice should be changed first if the dreams of Charter for Change are to be realised. There should be an end to politics of conflict."
The President's call fell on deaf ears as the promised change never arrived in our politics. When the President was addressing the parliament for the second time on January 25, 2011, he did not find the BNP-led opposition MPs in the House as they were continuing the parliament boycott.
Frequent House boycott by the opposition MPs has already crippled the parliament. The ninth parliament had 254 sittings so far. Of them, BNP-led opposition MPs joined only 51 sittings. And Opposition Leader Khaleda Zia, who was supposed to play a key role to lead a shadow cabinet to hold the government accountable, performed badly as she attended only six sittings in the last three years.
Photos: Star File
In fact, the return of the culture of confrontation has only encouraged the opposition leader and her deputies to dodge the House proceedings frequently. If the political situation is not improved much and the opposition MPs continue to boycott the House as they did in the last three years, we run the risk of making a new record in the boycott culture.
The then main opposition AL MPs boycotted 135 out of 400 sittings in the fifth Parliament. In the seventh Parliament, the then main opposition BNP MPs boycotted 163 out of total 382 sittings. Again, then main opposition AL lawmakers boycotted 223 out of 373 sittings of the eighth parliament's five year tenure.
In the current Parliament, the BNP-led opposition MPs have already boycotted 203 sittings in the last three years. And all prevailing signs suggest that the opposition MPs will not regularly join the House proceedings in the remaining two years as the politics has already started to be volatile and confrontational thanks to the cancellation of the provision of the caretaker government in June last year. The opposition MPs should think twice before taking remuneration and allowances from public exchequer without performing their due role in the Parliament.
|A rare moment in history.
Photo: Star File
President Zillur Rahman in his second address to the House on January 25 last year stated: “The parliament is the focal point in the practice of democracy. The active participation of the treasury and the opposition acts as the nucleus of democratic exercise."
He also said that democracy and democratic system in a country became consolidated if the parliament functioned effectively. “Alongside the treasury bench, the opposition's role is equally important to make parliament effective."
No one can disagree with what the president stated in his speech. But whether the ruling AL itself believes in it is a million dollar question. It is the AL-led government that approves the president's speeches before he delivers those in the parliament. So one can argue that the president's speech, in fact, gives us an idea about the government's plans and programmes and he has little scope to say his own words. The AL-led government itself approved then President Iajuddin Ahmed's January 25 speech in which he termed the ninth Jatiya Sangsad 'a Parliament for change”.
Unfortunately, neither the ruling AL nor the government took any effective measures to enable the House to work for change. In fact, as the treasury bench, the AL did rather well in the party's previous term in office. In the seventh parliament, the Prime Minister's Question (PMQ) hour was introduced, which was a big leap forward in strengthening the parliamentary practice. Since then the PM answers queries of MPs once in a week when the House is in session.
Another huge success of the then AL-led government was taking a bold step to make the parliamentary committee system effective. The rule of procedure of the Jatiya Sangsad was amended, dropping the ministers to head the parliamentary bodies. Provision was introduced to make MPs chiefs of the parliamentary bodies so they can effectively oversee the government's activities and to ensure accountability of the executive to the parliament.
The government is using the parliament as a “rubber stamp”. Photo: Star File
In the 8th parliament, when the BNP-led alliance government was in power, the rules of procedure of Jatiya Sangsad were also amended to give a permanent shape to the PMQ. New provision was also introduced making it mandatory for every ministry to reply all call attention notices raised by the MPs on different important issues.
The current ninth parliament did witness a good beginning. The parliamentary committees were formed in the inaugural session, and opposition lawmakers were given the helms of three parliamentary bodies -- all for the first time in its history.
Soon the government lost its urge to carry the changes forward. The culture of parliament boycott returned, lack of efforts to strengthen parliamentary committees, traditional ways of MPs functions and unruly activities of some ruling AL lawmakers took the shine off those successes. In the wake of growing political rivalries between the ruling and opposition camps, particularly after the cancellation of the caretaker government system, many people fear a possible political turmoil in the coming days centring the next parliamentary polls. If the situation remains unchanged, the remaining two years of the current parliament may not be able to yield good results.
Like the previous parliaments, the opposition MPs continue to nourish the House boycott culture while the government is using the parliament as “rubber stamp”.
The opposition MPs' frequent House boycott shows weakness in the “nucleus of democratic exercise”. As a result, people are becoming powerless by day and the government's activities have remained unchecked due to the failure of the parliament to perform effectively. Establishing good governance, rule of law and people's rights will remain a distant dream until the parliament is made functional.
Everything depends on the ruling AL whether it wants to bring some changes to the overall political situation or to complete the remaining two years in inertia. The party should not forget its electoral pledges for changes. The government's policymakers may follow a strategy of doing good things more and more to put pressure on the opposition parties to return to the parliament. If the House is really made effective, all credit will go to the ruling party and the government and people will largely be benefited. The BNP too may follow the same strategy to do something better to outplay the ruling party in the game of parliamentary politics.
The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.
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