In the name of constitutionby Israfil Khosru
IT IS widely stated that the election held on January 5 was necessary to ensure constitutional continuity, and to uphold the law of the land. While it is true solely on technicality, there is no denying that a significant portion of the political bigotries committed in this country since independence has been in the name of the constitution. History shows that our constitution has been mauled and abused repeatedly to give shape to political goals which were often immoral and staunchly against the ‘spirit’ of the constitution. While there is a plethora of discussions on what is stated in our constitution and what has been amended, the basic spirit behind the articulation of a constitution often goes unnoticed.
A constitution in essence is a set of guidelines to ensure fairness and protection of the rights of the citizen. It can also be categorised as a set of guiding principles which preserves the conscience of a state. Article 11 of the constitution of Bangladesh clearly states, ‘The Republic shall be a democracy in which fundamental human rights and freedoms and respect for the dignity and worth of the human person shall be guaranteed, and in which effective participation by the people through their elected representatives in administration at all levels shall be ensured.’ This particular declaration, in clear terms, encapsulates the basic spirit of our constitution and consequently our nationhood. While amendments were made by political regimes to bring about procedural alterations to seize power or hold on to it, the spirit remains the same, albeit neglected.
While Article 11 puts a firm emphasis on the notion of democracy and fundamental human rights, certain provisions within our constitution are contradictory and act as a direct hindrance to these notions. While it is not possible to shed light on all such provisions, there is one in particular which is absolutely detrimental to the evolution of democracy in our country. Article 70 of our constitution states, ‘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 (a) he resigns from that party or (b) votes in Parliament against the party; but shall not thereby be disqualified for subsequent election as a member of parliament.’ The rationale behind a member of parliament, who has been provided the mandate based on a party ticket, vacating seat upon resignation from his party can be understood. However, revoking his/her right to vote against his/her own party in parliament is likely to lead to a threefold problem.
Firstly and most obviously, it provides absolute power to the head of the government, which is evident from our current political status quo. The nature of the government harboured by this particular constitutional provision can only serve to promote zero accountability and further narrow down the scope for quality policy dialogues. It also nullifies the need to build consensus within parliament regarding a policy decision and provides no motivation whatsoever for a member of parliament to provide constructive criticism on his/her government’s decision-making. Secondly, it largely diminishes the ability of government members to perform to their full potential due to centralised power structure. This has negative implications in terms of performance of a government as a whole and serves to harm the political party behind the government in the long run. Thirdly, it prematurely halts the development of democratic practices and values within the political sphere as the will of an individual to grab absolute power overrides the well-being of the political party and more importantly the nation. All these are contradictory to the basic spirit of our constitution.
While our rulers have consistently amended the constitution to further their own cause they seem to have kept that one particular provision that feeds their partisan goal intact. Our prime minister has constantly stressed on the importance of the recently-concluded election in upholding the constitution even though the main opposition shied away from it. While her government is still trying to legitimise this election by using the constitution as the sole excuse, it is safe to say that it has violated the spirit of this very constitution. If it cared about the constitution at all, its initial move would have been to amend those very provisions which are a true hindrance to democracy and not those that are mere cosmetic changes to gain short-term legitimacy.
The government, however, has managed to borrow some time through this one-sided election in which it has the opportunity to show some positive intent. Why not start with the amendment of Article 70? This will only serve to re-establish its commitment towards democracy and nothing less. Although it is only logical to be sceptical about such expectation, one can only live in hope.
Israfil Khosru is a businessman and runs a youth-led think tank called The Bangladeshi.
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