Thursday, January 28, 2010

Is Bangladesh a parliamentary democracy?

Another year of an elected government has passed; in all 16 years since the fall of General Ershad's military dictatorship. Ershad's fall had ushered both the fall of dictatorship as well as the end of the Presidential system of Government. The first elected government also chose for Bangladesh the parliamentary form as opposed to the presidential one for establishing democracy in the country.

Bangladesh's tryst with establishment of democracy through the parliamentary system of government has not been exemplary. In the opposition, both the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League have found excuses to stay out of the parliament. In the first year of the current 9th parliament, the opposition BNP and its allies attended parliament's plenary session for 23 of 95 working days. While this is unfortunate, it is by no means unexpected because the parliamentary system in Bangladesh has been working practically without the opposition since 1991.

The near permanent boycott of parliament by the opposition is one of the many undesirable things happening in Bangladesh's politics. In a parliamentary democracy, the opposition is indispensable. Just as it is impossible to imagine a hand making any clapping sound without another hand hitting it, it is likewise impossible to imagine a parliamentary democracy without an opposition. Yet the members of the opposition political party in parliament take all the benefits to which they are entitled. At present, the opposition members attend the parliamentary committees; go abroad in parliamentary delegations, etc. There is no reason to doubt that the opposition members will let their boycott of parliament stand in the way of accepting the privilege of import of duty free cars that the government will provide soon to the parliamentarians.

The ruling party is blaming the opposition entirely for the current stalemate over the issue of boycott of parliamentary sessions. While the opposition is no doubt failing in its duties and responsibilities as an opposition in a parliamentary system of government, it is sadly following the "tradition" set by the ruling party when they started the "practice" of staying out of the parliament on one pretext or the other in the 6th parliament after Ershad's fall. The Awami League did the same in the BNP's 2001-2006 term. It is now getting a taste of its own medicine as the BNP is staying out of the 9th Parliament as they had in the 7th. It seems like the political parties of Bangladesh enjoy being in the Parliament only when in power.

The way the political parties of Bangladesh behave while in the opposition is unique for there is no other country where the opposition has made it a habit to stay out of parliament. The two mainstream parties do not hesitate to take opposing stand on issues that are related to nation building where consensus and bipartisanship are essential. On actions that harm the nation, there is a strange and eerie similarity in the behaviour pattern of the Awami League and the BNP. For example, when it comes to hartal, students' politics, etc., that impact the country negatively; the two parties compete enthusiastically to beat each other. It is perhaps in the fitness of things that the BNP and the AL have the same view on how to act as an opposition party in parliament because its impact is negative on the country.

Sadly, the boycott of the parliament by the opposition is affecting adversely the main reason why millions sacrificed their lives in 1971 for making Bangladesh a sovereign nation; namely their desire to live in a democratic society under a democratic government. In the absence of the opposition in parliament, there is no political party to check the party in power from exercising its powers arbitrarily. In the well established political culture of both the parties, parliamentarians of the ruling party cannot express opinion to the contrary on any government decision. Thus, in the absence of the opposition, the mainstream political parties have turned the parliament as the listening post for praise of the Prime Minister and the government that is not conducive to establishing a democratic government.

The reasons that the opposition have given and still give for boycotting the parliament raises doubts about their seriousness to establish democracy. In the 8th Parliament, the AL stayed out of the parliament on the plea that the BNP did not relent on their "legitimate" share of seats in the front row and for not allowing their members the opportunity to speak in the plenary sessions. The BNP is using the same arguments against the AL for staying out of the 9th parliament. In the 8th Parliament, the BNP enjoyed 2/3rd majority and in the 9th parliament, the Awami League enjoys 3/4th majority. A minimum spirit of accommodation and compromise would have been enough for the BNP to keep the AL in the 8th parliament and the AL by the same effort to bring the BNP to the 9th parliament. It is strange that a political party with such majority in parliament can have such a negative mindset about the opposition, as the BNP had about the AL in the 8th parliament and the AL about the BNP in the present parliament. It is also unbelievable that the BNP and the AL do not see how their lack of spirit of accommodation and compromise not only makes democracy non-functional but also causes disruptions to the economy by sending the opposition to the streets as the AL did during the 8th parliament and as the BNP is threatening to do so very soon.

Both the mainstream parties have got it wrong in their perception of the role of the opposition in a parliamentary democracy. For a correct perception it may be worthwhile to examine the opposition's role in Great Britain that has given birth to parliamentary democracy. In Great Britain, the opposition is referred to as Her (His) Majesty's Opposition, a term coined by John Hobbs in 1826 and the leader of the opposition as the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Embedded in the concept is the fact that parliamentary democracy cannot work without dissent. Also embedded is the fact that parliamentary democracy also does not also allow dissent for the sake of dissent because it makes loyalty to the government a condition for the dissent.

Given the state of politics currently prevailing in the country, the mainstream political parties have not even scratched the concept embedded in "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition" in the last 16 years Bangladesh has "officially" been a parliamentary democracy. It does not seem that the two parties are likely to make any attempt to understand the concept anytime soon for they are not in any hurry to do so. Till this happens, Bangladesh can describe itself a parliamentary democracy; in practice is anything but that. Unfortunately, the fact that parliamentary democracy as practiced in Bangladesh is imperfect also negatively impacts upon establishment of democracy in the country. It is no wonder therefore that although the mainstream political parties speak about establishment of democracy in Bangladesh; the country is still as distant from achieving this goal as it was when it started the journey many decades ago.

In recent days, there is a lot of discussion about Bangladesh becoming a middle income country. The ruling party has set 2021 as the deadline for achieving this objective. Recently, the Finance Minister has said it will take Bangladesh 26 more years to graduate out of the LDC group. The Nobel Laureate Dr. Mohammad Yunus has given this deadline a little earlier. The different deadlines reflect uncertainties about achieving the goal. These predictions are also entirely based on economic indicators neglecting the political factors. Those making the predictions should take time to focus on political indicators instead for unless the AL and the BNP can cooperate on economic development and foreign affairs on a bipartisan basis, the goals of democracy and development will continue to elude Bangladesh as it has for the last 38 years of its independence. If our politics had been bipartisan since the fall of Ershad in 1991, we would have been a middle income group already. This is why it is so important to bring the BNP to parliament and for the AL and the BNP to develop between themselves the spirit of compromise and accommodation.

Published in The Daily Independent, January 29, 2010

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