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A threat to parliamentarianism

  • Published at 05:54 pm May 11th, 2018
A threat to parliamentarianism
Do we truly practice the Westminster system? / BIGSTOCK

Those we elect as MPs need to be able to voice their opinions and vote their conscience

Article 70 of the Bangladeshi constitution is a controversial and an often-ignored paradigm within our state structure.

At the advice of erstwhile Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, President Abu Sayeed Chowdhury promulgated the Bangladesh Constituent Assembly Order 1972 -- thereby institutionalizing the foundational structure of Article 70 in a newly independent Bangladesh.

Article 70 restricts voting freedom in the Jatiyo Sansgsad. And keeping the upcoming elections in mind, calls for its reforms have come from the likes of former president AQM Badruddoza Chowdhury and from various avenues of the judiciary.

The text of Article 70 is as follows:

A person elected as a member of parliament at an election at which he was nominated as a candidate by a political party shall vacate his seat if he (a) resigns from that party, (b) votes in parliament against that party, but shall not thereby be disqualified for subsequent election as a member of parliament.

Whereas 70 (a) is understandable given the nature of our politics, 70 (b) is where the controversy comes in -- with MPs being required by the constitution to vote as per the wills and wishes of the party leadership, in any and all matters of parliament.

And let us not belittle or condemn our Founding Father for his views -- his regime inherited a nation devastated economically, vulnerable politically, and perplexed socially.

Bangabandhu naturally believed that stability and continuity were relatively of greater importance than the institutionalization of liberal democratic agendas.

We can question this philosophy, but it is implausible to question Sheikh Mujib’s dedication for people’s rule in the country.

Almost five decades down the line, Bangladesh is on a rapid path of socio-economic progress, intertwined with a questionable state of democracy -- and it falls on this generation of political leadership to step away from the archaic, and frankly undemocratic nature of Article 70.

Harmful?

Ironically, varying perspectives from within the constitution itself can be inferred to as perceiving Article 70 as detrimental to the sovereignty of citizen’s law.

Institutionalized in the preamble itself, democracy is explicitly stated as one of the four major tenets of the constitution.

Following a period of changing political structures, when Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina led this country on a path towards democratic parliamentarianism in 1991 -- this country naturally hoped that our two leading parties would adhere to the basic principles of the constitution.

Sadly, such has not happened. As parliamentary democracy slowly internalized following the ouster of General Ershad, the Jatiyo Sangsad increasingly became a rubber stamp body for the executive branch of the government.

Dr Kamal Hossain and Dr Badruddoza Chowdhury, two pioneers of the Awami League and the BNP in its most crucial years -- have moved to the shadows of parliamentary candidacy or the likelihood of being elected, simply for speaking their minds and disassociating themselves from their parties.

The duopolization of politics by the two major parties, and the singular nature in which their leaders have dictated the rules of governance over the last few decades, has indeed been accentuated by the existence of Article 70.

As such, if this is not harmful to the tenet of democracy enshrined in our constitution, then one begs the question, what is?

Fundamental rights include freedom of expression, conscience, speech, and thought -- all of which is being sidelined by the existence of Article 70

Notions of democracy

Our constitution proclaims the supremacy of fundamental rights over any and all laws of the land -- stating that any acts or laws inconsistent with these rights are made void by the constitution itself, and it falls on the state to ensure the preeminence of these rights.

Fundamental rights include, but are not limited to, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and freedom of thought -- all of which is being sidelined by the existence of Article 70.

If an MP is unable to voice their opposition to what they perceive as wrong or anti-citizen in nature, then parliament in reality becomes a useless body for partisan debate. Then what is the point of the parliament? What is the point of us going to the voting centre and casting our vote for our preferred MPs?

The BNP today suggests that there is no democracy in Bangladesh, while the AL has a strange notion of democracy-vs-development.

But we question them vocally -- if you cannot ensure the basic fundamental rights of your citizens, through their representatives in parliament, how do you call on people to trust your judgment in a body which curtails the freedom to vote according individual conscience?

They will ask questions

Bangladeshis may be quiet about these issues for now, but with increasing education and social media awareness, there will come a time when the people will question the parties which they have elected and glorified over history, and hold them accountable for practicing one-day democracy.

Our country has witnessed the proclamation of a one-party state, open doors for anti-Liberation elements to prosper, nine years of autocratic rule under a mighty general, and the sheer divisiveness with which two elected leaders have ruled the roost and influenced our institutions.

We have seen it all -- and for the public, there remains little doubt, that given the existence of this one-day democracy of voting and the subsequent monopolization of state power, our two major parties have undeniably practiced competitive authoritarianism during their respective tenures in office.

The continuing existence of Article 70 only promotes this very notion.

The call for reforming Article 70 is not saying no to the successes of this government on the economic front, neither is it a green signal to the BNP’s perspective that there is no democracy in Bangladesh.

Naturally, there are greater consequences and ramifications regarding Article 70, and these need to be debated upon by our scholars.

But as citizens, if those we elect cannot voice their opinions and vote their conscience, then not only are we moving away from the norms of Westminster democracy we so proudly proclaim, but we are catalyzing the path for constitutionalized authoritarianism to be promoted and prosper.

This needs to change, and we are calling our parties to take the lead in bringing about this change through their manifestos for the upcoming election.

Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a student of international relations at the University of Toronto.

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