“A Member of Parliament has little choice but to follow the commands of his/her superior in the party”. Discuss in context to the Floor crossing law under the Bangladesh Constitution.
In a country such as Bangladesh, where the majority of people are practicing or non-practicing Muslims, with a few Hindu and Christian minorities making up the whole population, it comes as no great surprise that the country is a base for collectivism and not individualism. With so many people living in only a hundred and forty seven thousand square kilometer, it is only normal that the country is suffering from a poor economic stability, arising out of another important factor, political stability. Bangladesh is a self-proclaimed democratic country with one-hundred and sixty million people living in it. The democracy that prevails in this country is based on one five-year terms of the ruling parties tenure, after which elections are held and whichever party gets the most votes come into power.
1.1 Democracy in a nutshell
Democracy consists of four key elements: using free and fair election to choose a new government, citizens of the country taking an active role in politics and civic life, human rights protection of all citizens, equal application of law and procedures to all citizens. These points summarize the entire point of having a free and fair office running the country and to hold them responsible for any action.
Government is accountable to the people for every action they do in the office; that is why democracy is a way of choosing the government through free and fair elections and holding them accountable. Therefore, elected representatives or Members of Parliament should listen to the people and respond to their needs and suggestions.
Citizens taking an active role in the participation of politics by choosing which party to support are a way of forming democracy. They should not be pressured into situations where they have to support one party particularly due to coercion.
Every citizen has the right to gather support freely against government action. Even if a Member of Parliament votes against their party, it should not be withheld or they should not be penalized for that.
1.2 Democracy in Bangladesh
Bangladesh is a Republican state. Republicanism by definition is a form of government where the leaders of a country are selected for a certain period by the citizens choosing them and laws are passed for the benefit of the entire nation, rather than only a lucky few. Ideally, leaders are selected from the working class, who serve as the nation’s representative for a specified period and go back to the life of a normal citizen and cannot serve again. Political liberty is key in Republicanism. More importantly, as pointed out by Bo Li, Republicanism is one of the four sources of democratic theory.
The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh states in Article 27 that all citizens are equal before the law and entitled to equal protection by the law. Article 28 (1) lays down the framework for non-discrimination of people based on sex, place of birth, religion, caste or race. Article 29 (3) there shall be equality of opportunity for everyone in the public service of the state. This not only applies for people citizens but those citizens working as members of parliament too.
In Bangladesh, a member of parliament cannot vote against his own party because it will allow him to forfeit his seat in the parliament. Abdul Muntaquim Chowdhury, a member of the constitution drafting committee, defended the scenario saying that since the Parliament democracy was introduced for the first time in Bangladesh, some restrictions need to be made to guard against any possible attack on it by putting on some restrictions on the members of the parliament. However this was way back in 10 April, 1972 when the constituent assembly was formed under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League reign and up till 2012, there has been no remedy to rectify the situation. It would be seen as a serious breach of democratic power if members of parliament are not allowed to exercise their freedom of choice in electing the party that they believe will be a good representative for the people of Bangladesh. Mr. Montague Chowdhury also stated that if a member of parliament decided to cast his vote against the decision of the political party, his membership to parliament would be cancelled. This is in direct violation of Article 29 where it was stated that the public servants will have equal opportunity to as those not working under the government.
1.3 Article 70 and ‘Floor-Crossing’
Under Mujib’s rule, the first constitution for the state of Bangladesh was passed and Article 70 of the constitution made light work of the member’s power in parliament. In this article it is stated that the Member of Parliament cannot vote against his or her own party in Parliament, essentially this was done to prevent was it is known as ‘floor-crossing’ that is changing loyalties from one party to another. In essence he or she can do it, but at a high cost of losing one’s seat in the Parliament and ending his or her representation of the mass people. Subtle ambiguities, however, have had no bearing on ground reality. Only one MP, so far in the history of the state has taken the leap against Article 70. The problem arises in Bangladesh when each successful party in power has used this article to validate or legalize their pre-determined actions. There has not been that fear that comes with accountability by each party, because public sentiment really does not matter as Members of Parliament are kept quiet and the Parliamentary sessions are not properly utilized as a war zone for the cries of the masses. In this way the opposition’s power is largely diminished as there will be few to speak out against the government’s questionable decisions and the fact that nobody within the ruling party holds any bargaining power in questioning the government’s said maligned decisions. It is not exactly the case that the ruling party members of parliament cannot speak out against the government – they can, once the parliament sessions are underway, however from the moment vote is called, a Member of Parliament, has little choice but to follow the commands of his or superior in their party unless they want their seats to be at risk. Examples are stated by Saqeb Mahbub, a writer for the Daily Star, about recent events that signify what Article 70 has done for the Parliament. He states that the recent Constitution (Fifteenth Amendment) was passed in 2011 amidst fierce opposition from the Awami League’s own party members, only for the same party members to be heading for the ‘YES’ door and silently complying with the party’s wishes of passing the amendment. The Local Government (Amendment) Act 2011 was passed within four minutes after many proposed amendments by an independent lawmaker were gunned down by the ruling majority.
If a neutral observer was to look at this, it would seem that there is the possibility of a dictatorial tendency rising in the ranks of democracy in Bangladesh. Whether there is any truth to that is open to debate, but such examples do tend to bias one’s opinion in favor of an authoritarian behavior projected by the government of Bangladesh throughout its history. The definition of dictatorship is a country, government, or the form of government in which absolute power is exercised by a dictator. In this case the power was exercised by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the year 1972 when he passed the first Constitution. It it widely known that Mujib was known for his authoritarian style of ruling where he established a one-party rule, banned all newspapers except for a few government media, and declared himself a lifelong president in the amended constitution in 1975. He also established the highly controversial Rakhi Bahini, a political militia elite force which was loyal to Mujib who infiltrated civilian life and opposed anyone that got in Mujib’s way. Such behavior tended to diminish the power of the public and made it even more likely that the ruling party’s power would be even more by limiting the power of the members of parliament and their voting rights.
Putting forward all the cases, it is highly believable that a country like Bangladesh is a poor man’s democracy where the power of the people reaches only as far as the Parliament building itself. Even then, the cultivation of real democracy is further withheld by limiting the Member of Parliament’s voting rights to only his or her own ruling party, otherwise proper consequences will be faced.
Weakness in democracy instills weakness in Parliament. There is a lack of distinction between the executive and legislative branches, as the cabinet is formed the MPs of the ruling party, they retain their seats in the parliament and sometimes acts as committee leaders. Also, the parliament is weak because the prime minister of the country is by constitution powerful, because the executive is in control of the legislative agenda and because there is insufficient argument on policy, legislation and budget in the legislature. The parliament does not deal with these problems well and are far below international standards.
Article 70’s enforcement reduces a member of parliament’s role in providing checks and balances on the executive. When a government deals with the majority of its own members in voting for or against it, it has little to consider with respect to the problems it might face if votes went against it.
In the end, the decision to reduce the Member of Parliament’s power by forcing them to lose their seat if voted against them is an act that is deemed to be dictatorial in nature and must be addressed by the nation as a whole when electing a party to power. Any amendment done to the constitution must consider the consequences that giving to much freedom to a government will bring for the people and the country. Corruption is widespread in Bangladesh and must not be understated in the very least, rather it must be considered highly significant for the welfare of the nation that a country’s government can get away with a lot of misuse of power without fear of its own party members retaliating with a vote against them. If this authoritarian style of ruling is not addressed in the near future, the country will not prosper economically as well as socially.
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 Annon. (2012), CMI Brief, available at http://www.cmi.no/…/4423-parliament-of-bangladesh-boycotts-business.pdf accessed on 19 June 2012