Bangladesh’s Experiments with Parliamentary Democracy Essay
The parliamentary form of government in Bangladesh is rooted in the Constitution of 1972. Since then 13 amendments have been added, most important being the 4th, 5th, 8th, 12th, and 13th, incorporating these changes: (4th) from the Indian parliamentary type to the French presidential form, and the establishment of a one-party system (5th) deleting secularism as one of the basic principles of state policy and incorporating a part of a Koranic verse in the Preamble; (8th) declaring Islam the state religion; (12th) repealing the 4th amendment and returning to the original parliamentary form; and (13th) provision of a nonpartisan caretaker government to conduct every general election. The salient features of the Bangladesh Parliament under the 1972 Constitution resemble the Indian type more than the British, with the exception of the 13th amendment. Indeed, the executive power of the republic is vested in the office of the prime minister, although there is a president indirectly elected by Parliament every five years who “shall act in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister”.
The president is empowered to appoint the leader of the majority as prime minister, accept the latter’s resignation for lack of majority support, or dissolve the Parliament upon the latter’s advice. Like the American Presidential form, it takes only a majority vote to impeach the president and two thirds to remove him from office. The 4th Amendment, which has since been repealed, required a two thirds majority to impeach and three-fourths majority to remove the president. The Constitution provides for a unicameral parliament known as the House of the Nation, vesting in it all legislative powers and allowing delegation of rule-making powers to any person or authority.
The membership is set at 300 elected members: originally, 15 nominated seats were reserved for women but this was increased to 30′ by Proclamation Order No. IV of 1978. In the 1991 election these reserved seats proved crucial for Khaleda Zia and her BNP party in securing an absolute majority in Parliament. Because the BNP secured only 139 out of 299 contested seats (election in one constituency was postponed due to a candidate’s death), it formed a temporary coalition with the Jamaat-i- Islami (JI), an ultra-religious party that had won 18 seats, in order to be able to nominate women for the reserved seats. As a result, the BNP won 28 of the 30 women’s seats and the JI gained two, giving the BNP its absolute majority. Given the fact that the BNP and AL secured almost the same percentage of electoral votes (31 %), the former’s absolute majority based on the reserved seats fell far short of a mandate (see Table ). The situation was reversed in the June 1996 elections when the AL, securing 146 seats, needed one parliamentary vote, which promptly came from A.S. M. A. Rab (JSD), in order to form a government. In percentage of votes cast, the AL 1996 won by a wider margin than the BNP in 1991; 37.4% against BNP. 33.6% .
The legislative procedure of introducing’ a bill and enacting it into law follows the Western democratic model with the major significant difference that no provision is made for any direct or indirect involvement of parliamentary committees in the law-making process. Every proposal in parliament, according to Article 80, must be in the form of a bill. The successful passage of any except a money bill involves its presentation to the president after it is passed by a majority of members present and voting, 60 being the quorum.
The absence of a presidential veto, even during the primacy of the presidential system under the 4th Amendment until its repeal by the 12h, underscores an essentially parliamentary slant to Bangladesh’s legislative process. The approval of a bill by Parliament after the president returns it was made significantly more difficult through Proclamation Order No. IV of 1978, requiring an absolute rather than a
simple majority. Given the fact that President Ziaur Rahman could not be sure of gaining an absolute majority for his BNP party in the parliamentary election of 1979, he perhaps considered it prudent to insert that limitation in the Constitution. Serious charges of misuse of fiscal powers have been consistently leveled against different governments by opposition parties over a-span Covering seven parliaments. ironically, a strong ombudsman provision (Article 77) incorporated in the original 1972 Constitution has not been put into operation by any of the parliaments but neither has any of the seven had the will to delete it. Perhaps like the American case, Bangladeshi parliamentarians see the institution as having the potential to diminish their power by limiting the role of legislative committees dealing with investigations into governmental corruption, including electoral coercion and vote fraud. Another reason for not establishing a ,powerful ombudsman may be the resistance of the powerful bureaucracy to institutionalizing such a’ potentially effective mechanism administrative accountability and control. In this, a strange bedfellow alliance can be seen between career administrators and political leaders who have been overtly advocating reduction in both the power and size of the bureaucracy.
The apparent self interest driven alliance seems to have included the nouveau riche, who shy away from any effective probe into certain questionable business, banking, and stock market practices. To what extent the powerful, independent Election Commission, provided for under the 1972 Constitution and further strengthened by two acts of parliament in June and November 1994 and finally by the 13th Amendment in 1996, would be able to allay the fears of opposition parties is less doubtful now that a caretaker government for the second time successfully held a relatively free and fair general election.
An important reform of the committee system has been initiated by the new Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, and her “consensus” government. A joint committee has been set up with opposition MPs to look into ways of ‘improving the law-making process, and as an important first step, the traditional practice of cabinet members chairing different standing committees has been ended. Under the new parliamentary rules, all chairs of standing committees are elected. This is more in tune with the reformed committee system of the U.S. Congress, which interestingly, has an ongoing training program for third world legislative leaders. Sheikh Hasina, during her tenure as leader of the opposition in the late 1980s, certainly benefited from her participation in one such training session in Washington, D.C. As for electoral reform, two acts of Parliament provide for mandatory voter registration with individual picture IdS and greater autonomy of the Election Commission. In order to serve that purpose, the Commission was made directly accountable to Parliament. The administrative functions of Parliament were brought under a separate secretariat, making the legislative body relatively independent of the national bureaucracy. In the re-organization efforts, Parliament has been given crucial training and technical support by some donor agencies, particularly USAID, USIA, and the Asia Foundation. Under the auspices of the Asia Foundation, a number of Election Commission officials have been sent Thailand to learn the computerized voter identity system, and in this connection, an American electronic vote tabulation expert, Ralph Heikkila has been brought in as chief consultant of the electoral computerization program. Heikkila is credited with developing the electronic computer voting system for Los Angeles in the early 1970s which was later used as a model by various other U. S. cities. The estimated cost of hiring 700,000 enumerators needed to put the computerized system into operation would be at lea US$60 million, excluding hard/software and consulting expenses. In essence, the cost of developing and using an effective mechanism to reduce significantly the chances of electoral miscalculations and fraud may very well run into millions of dollars. To what extent Bangladesh and its foreign donors are willing to make that kind of fiscal commitment remains to be seen .
THE MILITARY FACTOR
With a view to maintaining support of the armed forces for the new democratizing process and thus avoiding a possible coup, the acting president of the first caretaker government in 1991 tactfully left the military bureaucracy alone. Indeed, without the initial support of senior military officers, such as Lt. General Nuruddin Khan (who won a parliamentary seat on an AL ticket in the 1996 June election), for the anti- Ershad mass movement led by an effective coalition of most political parties, including the two largest ones, the coalition efforts could have dragged on, making it increasingly difficult for the parties to sustain the intensity of the movement. The movement would not have fizzled out as in 1987, but even lukewarm support for Ershad by military leaders would have given Ershad adequate opportunity to ensure at least his own security through a realignment of factions within the military, if possible, and certainly through a rearrangement of incriminating pieces of evidence against himself. Fighting the interim government held elections from outside the jail could have made an enormous difference for him in influencing the electoral outcome much more to his liking. By withholding their support for ErslIad and subsequently allowing his incarceration, the military leaders attempted to distance themselves from the president, thereby using him as a scapegoat for the political and economic corruption of nine years of military rule.
Given the circumstances in which Ershad felt confident in continuing Ziaur Rahman’s policy of militarizing the society, military leaders chose to protect their vested interests by using Ershad to deflect the public wrath against the military as a developing institution. Lacking support from top army officers and’ as well from the rank and file, Ershad failed to get the benefits of warning signals from miltary intelligence organs such as Director General of Forces Intelh zence (DGFI), Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), and National Security Intelligence (NSI), Mujib was a victim of obstructed intelligence communication caused by personnel changes, Ziaur paid the ultimate price for disregarding intelligence warnings, and Ershad fell partly because he was perceived as a threat to the military institution and, in particular, to the power of military intelligence agencies. The degree of political maturation of the military as a developing institution became apparent in May 1996. In order to protect its institutional interest, the military leadership gave the civilian president crucial support in putting down an attempted coup by the army chief, General Mohammad Nasim, in May 1996. The coup against President Abdur Rahman Biswas failed because the intelligence agencies and a few commanders felt that both Bengalis and external donors did not want it, and going against their wishes might hurt the growing legitimacy of the Bangladesh military. Given the history of military rule in Bangladesh, it becomes doubly important for the emerging democratic forces to make persistent efforts to contain the propensities for political domination by the military and its intelligence arm. To achieve that goal and sustain the process of democratization, the civilian government must transform itself from a state of incremental existence to a viable consensus building body with achievable programs of reform, and to realize that, the civilian leadership needs to present a united front of political parties and professional occupational communities, thus reducing the influence of street agitation on politics. This could also reduce the military’s control over the public sector, if not an immediate demilitarization of the Bangladesh polity. Such a cooperative political organizational move could have a positive effect on hitherto unorganized professional occupational categories of people, thereby reducing significantly the destabilizing impact of street agitation.
THE 1991 AND 1996 GENERAL ELECTIONS
In 1991 AL secured 88 as against the BNP’s 140 seats but the margin of popular votes separating AL from BNP was less than one percent. AL and its breakaway faction, BAKSAL, which had aligned with AL in the electoral fight along with seven other minor political parties using the same electoral symbol, and which in August 1991 merged with the AL, together won more popular votes than the BNP .The situation was reversed in 1996, with AL winning 146 against BNP’s 116, and a greater percentage of popular votes Perhaps the likely reasons, among other, for this electoral reversal were:
1. negative voting against some of the AL candidates in 1991 and against some BNP candidates in 1996;
2. more effective electoral alliance in 1991 between the BNP and the Jamaat-I-Islami Party (]I) than between AL and its combines, including BAKSAL and the Communist party of Bangladesh (CPB);the BNP in 1996 failed to get support from the 11 and the civil and military bureaucracy;
3. issue-oriented campaign of the BNP leadership in 1991; its deviation from issues coupled with the failure of impression management benefited AL candidates in 1996;
4. overconfidence of the AL and BNP leaderships about the electoral outcomes of 1991 and “1996.general election, respectively, which affected adversely the intensity of the final stage of their campaigns;
5. AL leadership’s denunciation of Zia ur Rahman in 1991, who waswidely admired by the Bangladeshis; BNP leadership’s aspersions onMujib in 1996, because with the passage of time Mujib’s role as the founder ‘of the Bengali nation was being increasingly recognized by Bangladeshis with a prick of guilty conscience for not rising in protestat his assassination and the murder of most of his family members in1975;
6. greater appeal of Khaleda Zia among the young citizenry, mainly because of her uncompromising stand against Ershad, and the support she enjoyed among women voters in 1991; her rapidly eroding electoral support in 1996 due to her uncompromising stand against caretaker government conducted general elections; the assassination of an AL candidate just before the election in which certain members of the BNP’s inner circle were implicated, and her failure to protectbasic human rights, particularly of women and children;
7. Sheikh Hasina’ s lapses in recapitulating the specific reform measures slated on the AL platform for the realization of Mujib’s (popularly called the friend of Bengal or Bangabondhu) dream of a “Golden Bengal” in 1991, compensated for in 1996 by her bold stand on the issue of holding elections through neutral caretaker governments and her public apologies for any mistakes of the last AL government.
The rightist party 11, won 18 seats in the 191 parliamentary election, perhaps partially due to its last minute alliance with the BNP. It was electorally significant not because it received 8 more seats than in the 1986 election but because its 18 votes enabled the BNP’ to get 28 of the 30 reserved seats for women, thus giving it an absolute majority in Parliament. In 1996 Jamaat won only 3 parliamentary seats, chiefly because women rejected it for its stand against women’s rights. Moreover,the election of Gholam Azam as the party chief revived bitter memories of Pakistani military repression and the alleged collaboration of Gholam Azam and other JI leaders with Pakistan in the Bengali war of independence. This and a failed alliance with the AL and other opposition parties further hurt the JI in the 1996 general elections.
The Jatiya Party(JP) managed to win 35 seats in 1991, with its leader Ershad in jail for the possession of an unlicensed firearm and winning in five constituencies while serving a 10 years prison term for that conviction. This underscored the importance of constituency cultivation by individual leaders. In 996 Ershad again won five parliamentary seats, fighting the election from prison, but the JP lost two of his four vacated seats in the September by elections, bringing its total to 30. But Ershad’ s unconditional support to Hasina resulted in his conditional release from jail, the- inclusion of his party’s secretary general, Anwar Hussain, in Hasina’s “consensus” cabinet, and 3 reserved women’s seats. Twelve parties and the independents out of 63 parties and hundreds of independents contesting the election won parliamentary seats in 1991.
But in 1996, out of 76 parties, only five parties and one independent won seats. AL and BNP with 146 and 116 seats, respectively, emerged as the major players, underscoring a trend toward a two party system. This may be a double edged sword. It could offer the people a greater opportunity for political stability or, lacking an understanding of the authority and responsibility of majority rule, such political competitiveness could also have a destabilizing effect. Even with a considerably reduced chance of any future military takeover of the civilian government, the possibility of future gridlock between the AL and BNP leadership citing such grievances as unequal air time, insufficient representation in parliamentary committees and legal harassment of BNP party workers. Fortunately, the parliamentary boycott ended in January with a four point accord with the AL, but the accord seems to be collapsing due to serious differences between the two over Bangladesh’s relations with India, particularly concerning the recently contracted water treaty, land transit facility, and tribal policies. Besides the possibility of another parliamentary crisis, the pursuit of justice by the AL government in regard to the assassination in August 1975 of Sheikh Mujib ur Rahman, the elected leader of Bangladesh, and the massacre of his family could also have a destabilizing effect on the Bangladesh polity.
It has already opened up a Pandora’s box by implicating a number of Al leaders in the coup that led to the assassinations. Moreover, the Post coup parliament, which enacted the Indemnity Bill in September 1975 giving quasi legal protection to those responsible for the coup and coup related incidents, was dominated by the AL. With the repeal of the Indemnity Act on November 12, 1996, many more arrests could be made in addition to persons already in custody such as Colonels (ret.) Farook Rahman ad Shahriyar Rashid Khan, ex Minister Taheruddin Tahakur, and a few former junior commissioned officers. Among other leaders, Khandakar Mushtaque Ahmed, who allegedly masterminded the coup and the assassination of Mujib, has died and the rest are on the run. Those who were absorbed into the diplomatic corps by General Ziaur Rahman, creator of the BNP party itself are reportedly seeking political asylum in selected countries. Their diplomatic postings under the BNP government and the floating of the Freedom Party by Farook Rahman and Colonel Abdul Rashid, particularly the attempted recognition of Rashid, who was elected to the Sixth parliament on the Freedom Party ticket, as de facto leader of the opposition “in that short lived Parliament, did cast some doubt on the roles of top military officers, such as Safiullah, Ziaur Rahman himself, and Khaled Mosharraf, among others, in that August coup. Curiously enough, Safiullah has already been inducted as a senior member of Prime Minister Hasina’s “consensus” cabinet. No doubt that justice delayed is justice denied but approaching such an explosive issue with caution and moderation, particularly after a time lapse of 21 years, would have established a sounder basis of justice for all. The Supreme Court’s ruling on an appeal from the defendants on January 29 found Parliament’s repeal of the Indemnity Act to be constitutional, paving the way for open court trials of the defendants. To prevent any probability of a witchhunt, the AL leadership would be well advised to form a bipartisan special parliamentary committee to monitor the investigatory process.
The issue of a constitutional amendment to provide for a nonpartisan, caretaker government for the specific purpose of holding a general election every five years may not wait for moderation. Such elections every five years, or when necessary, could yield positive results in terms of building the needed infrastructure to nourish Bengali democracy. But democratic aspirations are being confronted by the political reality of the incumbent’s propensity to use the powers and resources of the state to ensure electoral victory. As mentioned earlier, the ruling party’s gestures of good intention coalition government, strengthening of the Election Commission, and so on may not be enough to allay the fears of opposition parties about government instigated electoral voilence and vote fraud. This is precisely why, despite the question of legitimacy of the Sixth Parliament, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution mandating caretaker government held general elections every five years, which took effect during Sixth Parliament, was overwhelmingly endorsed by most parties, both government and opposition. Democracy is a slow and frustrating process through with the legitimate hopes, aspirations, expectations, and demands of the people are transformed into tangible programs of action. Impatience and the lack of moderation and balance can undermine the democratic process, which can lead to rule by demagogues and/or autocrats. Even if the recent emergence of parliamentary democracy reflects the people’s power and determination, there is no guarantee of its continuation as a viable system. The events of 1975 and 1982 can be repeated. It is imperative, therefore, for the leaders of democratic forces to tread cautiously, charting a balanced course of moderation and structural change in the politico administrative policy making and policy implementing mechanisms. for equity, justice, and fair play, certain basic values need to be nurtured: education and training, the dignity of labor, social, and health security, socio political and religious tolerance. There must be respect for the law, and for this a hopelessly outdated legal system needs reform. Any perceptible efforts by the Bengali leadership in this regard would raise civic consciousness about national and local goals, which in turn could have a positive effect on the process of internalization of nation building values. With a sound democratic foundation in place, leaders will be on surer ground in addressing controversial issues perhaps even risking polarization as a last resort to achieve a consensus on making and implementing national policies.