Anyone who may be watching proceedings of the Bangladesh Jatiya Sangsad with the hope of witnessing a fiery debate over a controversial bill or a nail-biting vote might not find his time to be well-spent. The very idea of a parliament being a place where members come together and discuss an issue, try to convince fellow members to support their cause and then call for voting, is a concept alien to our parliamentary democracy.
Article 70 stands proudly and relatively unhurt, stating as follows:
“70. 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; or (b) votes in Parliament against that party; but shall not thereby be disqualified for subsequent election as a Member of Parliament.”
This law basically blocs the development of the parliamentary government. The main spirit of the parliamentary government is that the government is accountable or responsible to the legislature. So, the executive is always not sure whether he is going to be supported or not and therefore it always tries to feel the pulse of the members or tries to be more responsive. But, under the anti defection or anti floor crossing law the government and the executive is in a position from where they can practice dictatorship, as there is none from the government to protest or vote against. So, the government as it is not going to be accountable to any of the members or legislature it can pass any unethical bill which can be detrimental to the country and there is none to protest or vote against.
In a vibrant democracy, democratic practice or power of the people should not end with the casting of a ballot. But unfortunately for us, as soon as we have elected our representative lawmaker, he is out of our hands and in the clutches of the party that nominated him. No matter how much a particular party decision might affect the interests of his constituents or push the boundaries of his conscience, a lawmaker has no real power to vote against it. With this arrangement in place, sadly since the very inception of our country, our Parliament is only a rubber stamp to be used at the whim of the party in power. A parliament member is free to speak his mind on the Parliament floor but the freedom ends once the speaker calls for votes. From that moment onwards, an MP, the representative of the people, must only blindly follow his herd.
A parliamentary government should pass or take every single step judging the pulse of the members of the legislature to avoid defeat on the floor. This practice is called the responsibility of a government and a responsible government has got two main characteristics, they are: Individual responsibility to the ministers and collective responsibility of the cabinet. However there is no provision in Bangladesh to perform the individual responsibility. But still there is a provision of Article 55 which state the fact that the cabinet should be collectively responsible to the parliament. But, the truth is the Article 70 actually allows the government to get away from this responsibility too as the cabinet is sure and safe from getting defeated on the floor by motion of confidence or no-confidence.
A couple of recent examples have illustrated the consequences of concentrating power in the hands of party high-ups instead of the elected lawmakers. Sensitive and nationally significant laws have been masterminded in a closed-door party forum and then passed in Parliament hurriedly and amid opposition from the ruling alliance’s own ranks. The Constitution (Fifteenth Amendment) Bill 2011 was passed in the face of fierce opposition from Awami League’s backbenchers and leftist allies; they had proposed amendments, debated on the floor, but to no avail. Only minutes later, they were all found to go through the “YES” door, silently complying. The Local Government (Amendment) Act 2011, dividing the Dhaka City Corporation, was passed in four minutes, after a set of amendments to the bill proposed by an independent lawmaker was quickly gunned down by the ruling majority.
Recently, the Awami League government passed a minor amendment to Article 70, making it possible for an MP to abstain from voting even when his party decides to vote. But in votes that have followed, most significantly the DCC split vote, this change has hardly seen the light of day in practice. After so many years of democracy and with the presence of a strong bi-partisan political system, unfounded fears of “floor-crossing” (Floor crossing means to resign from one party and to join another party. In broader sense, the term “floor crossing” refers to voting against one’s own party in the House or parliament during the time of voting. This term “floor crossing” can also be called “political defection” or “side swapping”.) are hardly any justification for holding back MPs from doing what they are mandated to do. It seems likely that without a wholesale scrapping of the provision and addressing the issue head-on, the opportunity will go missing for a vibrant parliamentary culture. A constitution without Article 70 will at least give us a fighting chance of creating a matured parliamentary system where the government is checked and balanced by its own ranks and the opposition has a genuine say in the law making process of the country.
The restrictions drafted in the article 70 of the constitution modified little during the process of adopting the constitution by the constituent assembly. The modification however did not improve the situation; it has rather made the provision more stringent. The draft article 70 had provided that a member of parliament would lose his membership if he resigns from or is expelled by the political that nominated him as a candidate at the election. In modification, the issue of expulsion from the political party, which was one of the grounds for losing membership, was omitted. Instead, a new clause was incorporated in the article 70. The new clause imposed restriction on MPs to cast votes in parliament against the party that nominated him at the election. If one does it, s/he would lose membership. As a result, MPs were not allowed to cast votes against his/her own party line in parliament regardless of the party’s decision whether it is right or wrong.
Interestingly, Bangladesh is not the only country with draconian restrictions on its MPs; her colonial cousins India and Pakistan have both incorporated provisions similar to Article 70 albeit with significant exceptions.
Anti floor crossing law is also found in our neighboring country India and Pakistan. But, in these two countries the law is more logical and practical. According to the constitution of Pakistan only in the case of election of the prime minister, motion of confidence and money bill if someone votes against the party or do not attend in voting for the party then only he or she loses his or her own seat or membership. On the other hand, under the constitution of Bangladesh regardless of the issue if some member votes against his own party or does not participate in voting at all or be absent during the voting he loses his membership. So, in Pakistan if one party wants to pass an unethical or undemocratic bill someone from the same party can vote against it, but in Bangladesh there is no such opportunity. Even in India there is a specific rule to vote against one’s own party, but if someone breaks that specific rule without permission then only he is to be guilty. But if the party forgives that person within 15 days then he will not lose his membership.
The residual freedom in the Indian and Pakistan constitutions are certainly theoretical improvements from what we possess in Article 70, despite our recent amendment lifting the restriction on abstention of but for true free-flowing parliamentary democracy to flourish, anything less than complete freedom to vote is insufficient.
Nobody knows how long the dark shadow of article 70 will remain in force, making the people’s representatives subservient to the political parties. In contrast, the executive branch has been consolidating its position in all unholy ways, making imbalance of power and diminishing the prospect of good governance. Nothing can contribute significantly to transform the parliament into country’s supreme political institution to represent the people’s will until MPs are set free from the tight rein of the political parties.
MPs in England have overpowered Blair’s effort to narrow civil liberty on November 9, 2005. Civil liberty groups and minority communities particularly Muslims were septic about the law as it would allow police to exercise wider power. Even though there had been call for restrain from his own party, Blairs seemed very obstinate. Even, he called two of his cabinet colleagues from their foreign visit in order to cast their vote in favor of the propose bill.
It is not the opposition that defeated Blair. It is his own party men who cast vote against Blair. Thus, backbenchers sang the song of British Parliamentary democracy. Members of the British Parliament are at full liberty to decide their own mind regarding any motion tabled in the Parliament while it is not possible in Bangladesh due to constitutional obligation of MPs.
In our system of parliamentary democracy, however, the power of the people ends at election time when they have chosen their delegates to the legislative assembly. Once an MP is elected, they have no further legal obligation to vote in Parliament as their voters direct, instead, our Constitution dictates that directions to be obeyed by them are to come from the party that nominated them. No matter how much a representative of the people may be influenced by their constituents, or regardless of how much their conscience may beg of them to contradict a party decision, they must follow their party superiors. Democracy then hits a brick wall.
Contradiction among the MPs and in the constitution:
The idea of parliamentary government is that the government should be responsible to the parliament or legislature. On the other hand, under the presidential government, government is not responsible to the legislature. But as we can see that Article 70 is blocking the system of being responsible to the legislature, so in Bangladesh we are actually not practicing the parliamentary government system. Article 70 doesn’t allow the MPs to vote against party’s undemocratic decisions or protest against it. But, actually Article 70 doesn’t set any rule against expressing their opinions in the party meetings.
Recommendation and Conclusion:
For the development of proper parliamentary democracy, Parliament must lose its image of being the ruling party’s backyard. The fact that the opposition is an indispensable part of Parliament must be appreciated by the parties in government and opposition, and as such the conditions required to make its role a meaningful one must be fulfilled. As long as Parliament serves the purposes of the party in power and that party only, no opposition will be drawn by the idea of wielding its power of public support on Parliament premises where it is bound to be defeated by the existing majority. A stable and effective government system is always more important than the system. In Bangladesh we have witnessed in the past and still now that politicians became corrupted and self interest, greed and power expectations among the political people are common phenomena. So, it will be unrealistic in terms of Bangladesh just to remove this law. Removing this law might create another unworkable situation and the government may fall and no stability like 1954-58 maybe witnessed once more. So, the prevention of floor crossing is needed for the stability of the government.
As long as Article 70 shields the government’s interests in Parliament, the opposition has no substantive purpose there. And then, one could say, Parliament has no purpose. Therefore, to lay the foundations of a healthy, functional Parliament, Article 70 and the irrational restriction on the conscience of its members must be abolished at any cost.
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- See Prime Minister’s Office, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Part 5,
- See, Halim, “Constitution, Constitutional Law and Politics: Bangladesh Perspective.” pp.176-178.
- See, Nazrul, “Article 70 And The Future Of Parliamentary Government” pp.3-4.
- See, Moudud, “Bangladesh: Era of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman”, p-108.
- See, Baxter, Craig, “Government and Politics in South Asia”, 2nd edition. P-248.
- See Bangladesh Parliament (2012), Retrieved from http://www.parliament.gov.bd/
- See Mahbub, S. (2012, April), “Can Parliament Be More Than A Rubber Stamp?” Forum. The Daily Star, 6 (4).
- See, Halim, “Constitution, Constitutional Law And Politics: Bangladesh Perspective.” pp.178-179
 See, Nazrul, “Article 70 And the Future of Parliamentary Government” pp.3-4.
 See Prime Minister’s Office, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Part 5,
 See Baxter,C. (1991) “Government And Politics In South Asia”. 2nd ed. Oxford: West View Press.