• Thursday, Nov 15, 2018
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Is the dissolution of parliament a prerequisite for fair polls?

  • Published at 03:39 am April 22nd, 2018
  • Last updated at 09:46 pm June 6th, 2018
Is the dissolution of parliament a prerequisite for fair polls?

'As per the constitution, there is no obligation to dissolve parliament if a general election is held within the period of 90 days prior to the date of expiration of its term. But, parliament must be dissolved if the election is held after the expiry of its term'

With the much-hyped 11th general election barely nine months away, the debate over whether or not parliament will be dissolved ahead of the polls is heating up. 

Leaders of the ruling Awami League are resolute in their stance that the government will not retreat one iota from the constitution and the election will be held under the current government. On the other hand, its arch-rival BNP has long been demanding that parliament be dissolved and the election be held under a non-partisan “polls-facilitating government.”

During talks with the Election Commission last year, a large number of civil society members and journalists spoke in favour of dissolving the House for ensuring the election, due in December this year, is held in a participatory and competitive manner. 

Eighteen out of the 40 registered political parties recommended dissolution of parliament before the announcement of polls schedule, while Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal proposed relieving MPs of their duties with the announcement of schedule.

What the constitution says

Article 123 (3) states that a general election of MPs shall be held within 90 days before dissolution of parliament by reason of the expiration of its term, and  within 90 days after dissolution of parliament by reason other than the expiration of its term. 

Explaining the provision, Supreme Court lawyer and constitution expert Dr Shahdeen Malik said: “As per the constitution, there is no obligation to dissolve parliament if a general election is held within the period of 90 days prior to the date of expiration of its term. But, parliament must be dissolved if the election is held after the expiry of its term.”

Looking back at the past

After the forced resignation of military dictator HM Ershad on December 6, 1990, a nonpartisan interim government was formed, with then chief justice Shahabuddin Ahmed as its chief adviser, to help the transition from authoritarianism to democracy. 

The system was adopted as a constitutional provision in 1996 by the BNP-led government in the face of widespread violence by Opposition Awami League demanding polls under a non-political interim government. Since then, nonpartisan caretaker governments had overseen three parliamentary elections (in 1996, 2001 and 2008) and facilitated the transfer of powers from one elected government to another.

Under this system, which was later scrapped through an amendment to the constitution, an outgoing government had to dissolve parliament 90 days before the expiration of its tenure and hand over powers to a non-elected interim government comprising 10 advisers including one as chief adviser. The interim government had to hold an election within these 90 days and hand over powers to the next elected government within 120 days of the receipt of powers. 

However, as the system came under fire in 2007 with the military-backed caretaker government of Fakhruddin Ahmed staying beyond its mandated term and delaying the voting by about two years, it was abolished by the Awami League-led government on June 30, 2011 through the passage of the 15th amendment. 

As the government turned a deaf ear to BNP’s repeated calls for dissolving parliament before the 10th general election and holding it under a non-political administration, the Opposition and its allies boycotted the polls held on January 5, 2014 amid widespread violence and a low turnout.

The ruling party’s arguments

Awami League presidium member Lt Col (retd) Muhammad Faruq Khan said the government was not mulling dissolving the House ahead of the polls.

“In no way will parliament be dissolved. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will head the interim government, and fewer MPs will make it into the executive to perform routine tasks.” 

Asked about the possible interference by the sitting MPs in electoral process and local administration’s functions, the former commerce minister said that once the polls schedule was declared, MPs would no longer enjoy the same authorities as they have done before, and they would only carry out electioneering within this period. 

“As the MPs will have no authority during the election period, there is no possibility that they will be able to interfere in the local administration’s activities.” 

Awami League General Secretary and Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader, too, turned down BNP’s calls for dissolution of parliament and the prime minister’s resignation before the election, claiming “there is no instance in other democracies across the world, where prime minister resigns during or before an election.” 

“So, the question of the prime minister’s resignation should not arise in our country too," he said.  

 

Counter-arguments

BNP leaders continue to assert the dissolution of parliament is a prerequisite to ensuring a level-playing field during the election.

“Police and local government’s officials cannot contravene directives of MPS as they always hold sway over the administration in their respective constituencies. So, how could a candidate expect a fair competition with his or her rival who is a sitting member of parliament?” the party’s senior joint secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi asked, while speaking to the Dhaka Tribune. 

Echoing Rizvi, BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said the dissolution of parliament and the prime minister’s resignation “is a precondition for holding the impending polls in an inclusive and competitive manner.”

Experts’ opinions

Conducting an election in a free and competitive manner without dissolving parliament is next to impossible in a country like Bangladesh where electoral frauds are commonplace, said former election commissioner Brig Gen (retd) M Sakhawat Hossain.

“Polls will be influenced if parliament is not dissolved, as on the one hand the election will be held under a partisan government [as per the existing system] and on the other hand, MPs will be in their positions,” he told the Dhaka Tribune. 

Speaking of the interference of MPs in local administration, Sakhawat said: “MPs always meddle in the posting and transferring of OCs [officers-in-charge of police stations], which is not just unlawful but ultra vires.” 

According to the Upazila Parishad Act 2009, MPs are supposed to play only an advisory role in Upazila Parishad, but their advisory role has now turned out like an “executive order,” said experts.

Earlier, citing examples of the US, the UK and Australia, where elections are held under the government of the day, Commerce Minister and Awami League Advisory Council member Tofail Ahmed recently urged US Ambassador Marcia Bernicat to “play a role” in bringing all parties to the polls under the current Hasina administration. 

Asked about the practicability of these countries’ electoral systems in Bangladesh, Sakhawat said Bangladesh was far away from adopting and complying with the systems the countries have developed over the years. 

“Do the MPs in the UK interfere in local government’s functions and head the managerial bodies of educational institutions in their respective constituencies? If not, then why are we drawing a comparison with the countries and their systems?  It’s a pointless argument,” he continued. 

Bangladesh is a long way even from the Indian variant of parliamentary democracy and political culture, the former election commissioner added. 

Echoing Sakhawat, Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary to Sushasoner Jonno Nagorik-SHUJAN, a non-government organization working for good governance, said: “If parliament is not dissolved, the competition between contestants will be uneven, which will run counter to the principle of level-playing field." 

In reply to another query about whether Awami League will face any challenge if parliament is not dissolved, he replied in the affirmative, saying “those MPs who will not get nominations from the party will rebel at its decisions and contest the polls as renegades against party-nominated candidates.”