Democracy and Political Parties in Bangladesh
In political science, parties are perceived as the 'schools of democracy'.
In 2013, Dr Inge Amundsen was commissioned by Chr. Michelsen Institute of Norway to look into the political parties of Bangladesh. In his report, "Dynasty or democracy? Party politics in Bangladesh", Amundsen found the political parties of Bangladesh lacking in almost all indicators of intra-party democracy. From recruitment to representation, participation to competition and responsiveness to transparency, all our major political parties are equally patrimonial, clientelist and democracy deficient (Realpolitik: Democratic Embeddedness within Major Political Parties in Bangladesh, Institute of Governance Studies, BRAC University, 2015, p 27-28).
While parties are not unexpected to comprise differing ideological and interest groups, Bangladeshi political parties are divided in monetary, local and parochial interest line. Devoid of any ideology whatever, leaders and workers change parties and fuel factional wrangling and disintegration which cause a serious setback in the institutionalisation of the party system (Mahfuzul Hoque Chowdhury, Dynamics of Political Parties in Bangladesh, South Asian Survey Vol 2, 1995, p 63).
On the other side of the coin, party leaders appear content with their patrimonial grip over every rank and file within. The system is thus inherently resistant to grassroots participation in party hierarchies and parliamentary contribution in state policies.
A study by Professor Nizam Ahmed on four sessions of the Fifth Parliament held between June 1993 and March 1994 showed that an average of 35 MPs participated in floor debates and none of them was from amongst the government and opposition backbenches. Yet, the Fifth parliament witnessed backbench revolts against the controversial nomination of Mr Abdur Rahman Biswas for the presidency and the leader's reluctance to reintroduce parliamentary system in 1991 (Nizam Ahmed, Parliamentary Opposition in Bangladesh: A Study of its Role in the Fifth Parliament, Party Politics, Vol 3. No.2 pp.147-168).
While the fifth parliament presented an encouraging picture, the vibe, unfortunately, could not be carried through. Experiences from the seventh parliament and onwards show that backbench activism became virtually non-existent.
A pertinent discussion in this regard is that of Article 70 of the Constitution of Bangladesh. This anti-defection clause has been popularly, but superficially, singled out to blame for all the problems of ours.
Article 70 includes only two cases of 'disobedience' to punish - MPs' resigning from and/or voting against their parties. Insertion of Article 70 in the Constitution had a chequered history, including the rampant amoral political defections of the 1950s, behind it.
Given an aggravated form of clientelist politics today, the risk of defections and making and unmaking of parties for petty interests are not quite gone yet.
It is likely that a straight removal of Article 70 might result in a panicking instability in our political landscape. Yet, Article 70 in its current format remains 'partially anachronistic' (Sabbir Ahmed, Article 70 of the Constitution of Bangladesh: Implications for the Process of Democratisation, BIISS Journal, Vol. 31, No. 1, Jan. 2010, pp. 1-13). This is for two specific reasons.
Firstly, it fails to balance the interest of party cohesion against the interest of constituencies electing the MPs. Public and/or constituency interests may not always run along the party line. Some MPs may still defect on strong ideological grounds rather than on material considerations. Instead of vanishing a dissenting member from the parliament altogether, s/he could be allowed to continue as an independent member until and unless s/he leaves his/her own party to join the opposition to trigger a motion of no-confidence.
Secondly, it has sweepingly prohibited every instance of anti-party voting on the floor. If assurance of government stability was the sole purpose of article 70, its application could well be limited to voting on no-confidence motions and annual budgets (finance bill).
These apart, it could conveniently be made non-applicable to votes on other resolutions, general legislative proposals and money bills. Such an argument was placed before the Supreme Court by Barrister M Amir Ul Islam in Abdus Samad Azad v. Bangladesh case of 1991. Barrister Islam argued that being a restriction on the MPs' free exercise of opinion, Article 70 must be read restrictively to govern their essential legislative duties only. The Court refused, wrongly perhaps, to adopt such a restrictive reading over a literal one. To the Court, MPs were simply not "free agent[s] to act while voting in parliament" (44 DLR 354, Para 26).
The Court, however, changed its mind in 2016. While dealing with the controversial Sixteenth Amendment in Asaduzzaman Siddiqui v. Bangladesh, Appellate Division lambasted the anti-defection clause for paralysing parliamentary autonomy.
Based on this, a lawyer freshly challenged the clause. While one of the judges was inclined to declare it unconstitutional, the second judge brushed the lawyer aside for trying to enforce the dicta (things not at issue in a case but coming by way of reference) of a judgment on a different issue (The Daily Observer, HC gives split order on Article 70, 16 January 2018). Sent to a third judge, the case was rejected summarily with an observation that article 70 actually 'safeguards democracy' (The Daily Observer, HC rejects writ challenging Article 70, March 19, 2018).
The third judge's opinion may arguably be taken as a too literal reading of the article, as was done in 1991.
Article 70 nevertheless remains over publicised as the sole troublemaker in our parliamentary life. Study into our parliamentary process shows that it has no direct application to the members' deliberation (except voting) in the floor. Nor does it have anything to do with committee works of the MPs. Neither is it an absolute bar for the MPs' free expression in media and before the society at large. The post-independence history of Bangladesh rather shows that floor-crossing was never as big a problem as were the problems of parliament boycotts, walkouts, absenteeism, confrontational street agitations, criminalisation of politics and lack of intra-party democracy and transparency etc.
Article 70 has always been a symptom, not the cause, of our deeply entrenched culture of patrimonialism, clientelism and democracy deficient parties.
M Jashim Ali Chowdhury is PhD Candidate (Legislative Studies), King's College London