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Old wine in new bottles, or just sour grapes?

  • Published at 09:10 pm March 20th, 2016

What exactly were the fruits of the BNP’s sixth national council?

With party chairperson Khaleda Zia and her son Tarique Rahman re-elected uncontested to their respective posts, the result of the council appears to be old wine in new bottles.

It is true that the party has suggested radical changes to the political system if elected to power for the fourth time. But that is a big if.

In her inaugural address to the council, Khaleda unveiled Vision 2030 whose centrepiece is the introduction of a bicameral legislature “to increase checks and balances in government.”

The obvious catch is that the BNP’s big new idea would require a constitutional amendment. That would require that the party achieve an absolute majority in parliament – a long-shot for a party that has not sat in the house for over two years.

Son Tarique also addressed the council in a recorded video message, but the details cannot be reported because there is a ban on writing about his statements.

Khaleda described the current political arrangement as an autocracy in the garb of a parliamentary democracy, meant as a criticism of the prime minister’s disciplined cabinet.

Her lament of the rise of the executive branch rings hollow in the face of the fact that the BNP council has just vested Khaleda and Tarique with absolute power to run the party.

Indeed, there was hardly any sign of checks and balances within her party at its council on Saturday.

Party leaders at the council gave Khaleda full authority to form a committee as she sees fit. Previously, one of the main functions of the council was to select the committee.

She has been given the power to reorganise any scrapped committee, subject to approval by the next council.

Moreover, although the new party charter has a one member, one post rule, Khaleda can now bypass this provision to give anyone more than one post.

It is not unfair to say that the BNP is itself becoming increasingly autocratic, with Khaleda fast being elevated to autocrat-in-chief.

So perhaps it is not a case of old wine in new bottles after all, but a case of old wine turning to vinegar.

It is against this backdrop that the call for a bicameral legislature must be seen.

The party proposes to establish an upper house of parliament consisting of representatives of various communities, marginalised groups, professionals and intellectuals. Whatever that means.

There was no indication in her address about how the members of the proposed upper chamber would be chosen or who they would be representing.

Presumably the upper house will have the power of veto over the representatives of geographic constituencies in the lower house.

This would mean that narrowly defined interest groups perhaps representing a fraction of the franchise would be able to overrule the will of the elected representatives of the people.

But all of this is pure speculation, since the BNP chief neglected to elaborate on the composition, eligibility and selection of members of her proposed upper house.

Crucially, it is not all clear how the proposed system would in fact curb the powers of the executive branch.

Bangladesh’s prime ministers have traditionally exercised strong executive power, leading from the front and requiring strict discipline from the cabinet and the parliamentary party.

Khaleda would know this well, having held the office thrice since military autocrat HM Ershad (who is now the incumbent prime minister’s special envoy) was deposed in 1990.

She became prime minister after the country reverted to parliamentary democracy in 1991 through a constitutional amendment that did away with the presidential form of government favoured by military strongmen. 

But the presidential flavour was never entirely lost from the country’s political system. As noted earlier, prime ministers here have frequently been known to operate as cabinet autocrats.

Yet this is the first time since 1991, that Khaleda has publicly aired worries about autocratic airs.

Khaleda’s 71 minute speech was an entertaining listen but offered few answers to even basic questions about how the proposed system would operate and what benefits it would bring.

She also suggested restoring the referendum system. Observers point out that referendums, unless judiciously applied, can easily be abused and undermine routine, sensible and civil parliamentary debate.

Now, calling for a bicameral legislature is not a good sign. Even a standard two-house system would increase the cost of government and increase the complexity of the legislative process.

But Khaleda’s proposed upper house of special constituency representatives would be downright bad – taking legislative power out of the hands of people’s representatives and giving veto power to non-representative constituencies, however they are defined.

Bangladesh has 350 lawmakers. Why not work on empowering them and on democratising the political parties that field them at election time?

In the fractious and divisive politics of Bangladesh, two houses of parliament is sure to mean double the trouble in politics.

After so many years away outside of the formal political process, it is good to see the BNP thinking about democratic theory and showing an interest in parliament again.

But until the BNP (and every other party, for that matter) embraces democracy within, dreaming up ill-conceived schemes to curb autocratic tendencies in the executive branch just comes across as sour grapes.