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Why are we still continuing with a 'viceregal' political system? - Rounaq Jahan

Eroding democratic values and Constitution - Dr. M Zahir

Democracy: An unfinished agenda - Dr Kamal Hossain

A case for proportional representation - Rashed Khan Menon

Is majority rule same as democratic rule? - Kazi Anwarul Masud

Responsibilities of majority rule - Muhammad Zamir

The issue is democratic culture - Emajuddin Ahamed

Leaders and politicians - Mohammad Badrul Ahsan

Black money in electioneering - Inam Ahmed

Party nomination on sale - Rezaul Karim

The tale of limping parliament - Reaz Ahmed

Politicians hindering progress - AH Jaffor Ullah

Whither parliamentary standing committees - Shakhawat Liton

Politicians must take blame for failures - Syed Ashfaqul Haque


Antagonism takes precedence over understanding Shakhawat Liton

Thirteen years of democratic experience: Strengths and weaknesses Reaz Ahmad

Distorted political culture Shameem Mahmud

Party constitutions: Rarely followed Rezaul Karim



A case for proportional representation

Rashed Khan Menon

BANGLADESH, since its inception as an independent state, opted for western model of parliamentary democracy. The system of representation it adopted also followed the majoritarian first-past-the post (FPTP) system as is practised in United Kingdom and most of the commonwealth countries. The framers of the constitution did not look for other alternatives as they thought that this is best understood by the people, because whatever form of franchise they had during the British days as well as in Pakistan, they exercised it in this manner in national, provincial and local elections.

Also it was thought that Bangladesh is ideally suited for the first-past-the post model because of the homogeneous nature of its society, the unitary character of the state and existence of the unicameral legislature. Despite the changes in the form of government and also in the powers and functions of the parliament by different amendments of the constitution the system of representation remained the same. Except for demands by some of the parties to the left to introduce proportional representation system to accommodate all segments of people and their opinions in the governing process, other parties remained satisfied with the prevalent system.

But since then a grave question has arisen among the academicians as well as in the political parties as to the efficacy of the system as it failed to reflect true opinion of the electorate in the distribution of seats in the parliament elections vis-a-vis the percentage of votes received by the contesting parties in the elections held since the changeover in 1990's. According to the results of the parliamentary elections of Bangladesh held in 1991, BNP got 30.81% of votes and 140 seats whereas securing 30.08% votes Awami League got 88 seats only. The Awami League with its allies got a total of 37% of votes but its claim to power came to naught as the BNP held more seats despite falling behind in percentage. This happened because in individual constituencies the BNP candidates came out victorious as per the first-past-the post system.

This disappointed the opposition Awami League very much and they refused to accept the election results as fair and neutral. Although the question of ensuring neutrality and fairness of election was addressed by introducing the neutral care-taker government, the system of representation was not changed so that distortions in the distribution of seats remained.

The seventh parliament saw repetition of the same experience. Now, though the difference in percentage of votes received by Awami League and BNP increased a bit (AL 37.4 and BNP 33.6), the BNP started claiming that their victories in the individual constituencies were taken away by those people who staged a civilian coup in the form of Janatar Mancha to oust them from power.

In the election to the eighth Parliament though the difference in the percentage of vote received by BNP and Awami League narrowed down, the gap in the number of seats they got widened further.

This has resulted in a crisis in the whole system as the parties involved refuse to accept the election results, as they claim that these do not represent the will of electorate and along with other complaints of excluding them from the legislature and governance. Whoever goes to the opposition refuse to attend the parliament and go for boycotting it. Things have come to such a pass that the very parliamentary system has become deadlocked.

The majoritarian system, as is argued by its proponents, has definitely produced stable government, but as the practice has shown it has also engendered a sense of exclusion in the minds of the large section of the people who voted for the party in the opposition. The majoritarian emphasis also promoted a strong two party system in the country and divided the whole polity almost horizontally, and this has resulted in the exclusion of other opinions to be represented in parliament and also made it impossible for the people look for an option for change. Besides the question of representation and exclusion of other forms of opinion in the process of governance, the majoritarian rule also excludes the minority sections of the society like ethnic and religious groups from being represented.

In the individual constituencies where these ethnic and religious groups hold some sway over the electorate they rather face problem in the form of political persecution and other kind of harassment.

The majoritarian system is also gender-biased, as it does not allow the women to contest the male members of the society on the same plane.

The election system based on money power and musclemanry also distorted the majoratarian system in Bangladesh. In our parliament more than 50% of the seats are now occupied by the people of the business community and industrial houses. Whereas the majority of the toiling masses, even though they exercise the right to vote, are not represented in the parliament and cannot dream of it. Although people of the so-called 'civil society', get accommodated in the second chamber in some of the countries that follow majoritarian system, nobody from them would even go for such venture in Bangladesh.

In the light of the experience of first-past-the past system in Bangladesh there is talk about reforming it. The left parties like Workers Party, Communist Party have already put forward the case for introduction of proportional representation system through their political programme; some moves have also started among the ruling elites. Now when the government has come up with the proposal for increasing the number of seats in the parliament from 300 to 450 in order to ensure the representation of the increased population, the question of the system of representation demands a close scrutiny .

And here crops up the issue of proportional representation system. In this system (PR) parties are represented in the legislature on the basis of percentage of votes they receive in the elections. The members are elected to the parliament on the basis of lists provided by the parties. There are different forms of proportional representation practised in different countries. There is also the mixed system where 50 per cent of the seats in the parliament are filled by the first-past the post (FPTP) method and other 50 per cent by proportional representation (PR).

The arguments for PR are that it provides scope for wider representation of opinions and interests, discourages the growth of dominant parties, creates confidence in the voters that their votes are counted and they are included in the governing process. It enthuses them to participate in the election process more, brings in consensus through consultation, negotiation and compromise, provide opportunity for the ethnic, religious and regional groups and also addresses the gender issue. The main argument for PR system is that it helps develop pluralistic society.

About the PR system the widely held view is that it leads to "better governance based on greater engagement by the electorate and more representative in decision making. Such system largely represents the views of the electorate as represented in the ballot box, so diversity of views can be fed into the decision making process" (Maddock, D, 2001).

In the proportional representation system there is no 'no-go areas' for the parties as they are to address all sections of the people. As in the case of FPTP in PR there is no scope for swinging some votes in the marginal seats, rather the swing must be general one so that it can be reflected in the voting. This forces politicians to go for all areas of the country rather them focusing on some pockets of influence.

The PR system also develops the culture of cooperation among the parties rather than of confrontation, which has become a feature of Bangladesh and a major cause for poor governance. Though there is argument against the PR system is that in this system of government tends to be weak and less stable because various parties form a coalition, the proponents of the PR system, however, maintain that coalition governments are not necessarily weak, rather they represent different groups and make the government stronger.

The main argument against the PR system, however, is that in the absence of electoral districts there is no linkage between legislators and voters causing lack of accountability and transparency among the representatives. But this can be well answered if the political parties are based in the grassroots and nomination to the list of members to be elected is done from below.

The office of the member of parliament in each constituencies also can ensure close links between the representative and the electorate. The PR system can also help the local government grow in countries like Bangladesh where the MPs usurp the role of the local government on the plea that they are to answer, for the development and other matters of their constituencies as the people voted them directly.

The PR system also forces the larger parties to be more flexible and accommodative to other views in matters of governance. It also brings in parties together to work for the same good.

Though most countries of the world still follow the majoritarian system, several of them are now slowly opting for the PR system, by innovating different methods to suit the needs of the individual countries.

Bangladesh is a good case for introducing PR system as the people are now looking for an alternative to have their voice heard. The monopolisation of power in the hands of the two parties is weighing very heavily on them.

The introduction of proportional representation for the elected bodies would help them to come out of that predicament. Whichever form of PR would be suitable can be looked into. But if the politics of Bangladesh is to be recovered from the present impasse, a thorough reform is highly imperative in the political as well as electoral systems. The PR can be an important component of that reform. The sooner it is done the better.
The author is president of Bangladesh Workers Party

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