A parliament is the epicenter of people's power. It is the House set up by the people to guide the nation according to their wishes. It is where people's representatives meet to discharge their duties in the interest of those who elect them; where democracy plays out in full public glare; where through a process of contestations of ideas, opinions, and of personalities, the future policies of a country are determined.
It is a place where national plans are supposed to ferment through constructive debates; where contrasting interpretations of a particular proposal compete for the hearts and minds of the electorate. It is where people learn to believe that their views matter as they see their respective MPs representing their interest and not those of some coterie.
Parliament is also where a government is challenged. It is where a government is prevented from making mistakes; from rushing into poorly thought out plans; warned against unwise expenditures and foolhardy projects. More importantly, parliament is a place where a government is prevented from rushing into international misadventures as recently David Cameron's UK government was in the case of Syria.
It is also a place where individual power is tempered by collective wisdom. In sum, it is where people learn to believe that democracy as a system works.
Regrettably, we had no such luck. Our initial parliamentary system was destroyed by setting up one party state in the form of Baksal and presidential form of government. Then we went into 16 years of military or military-led governments with hardly any parliament to speak of.
It was our ardent hope that with restoration of the parliamentary system in 1991 we would see the emergence of an active and vibrant House. This was not to be. The Awami League never accepted gracefully its defeat in the first election after Ershad's fall and embarked on an anti-government path literally from day one. Starting with acrimonious utterances leading to frequent walk-outs, to occasional abstentions, to complete boycott and finally culminating in collective resignation almost a year before the end of its term.
Not to be left behind, when BNP's turn came to be in the opposition in 1996, they returned the AL's compliments with increased vigour and greater acrimony. In the following two elections in 2001 and 2008 both BNP and AL had opportunities to change the culture of opposition's behaviour. But instead, we saw further widening of the gulf between the two leading parties and further deterioration of their relations both inside and outside the parliament.
In contrast to a competition of visions and clash of ideas what we had in our parliament over the last 24 years were exchanges of abuse, half truths, of contrived versions of facts and distorted narratives of history. As years went by these tendencies worsened with some women MPs in the 9th Parliament using the most foul and vulgar language ever heard in House proceedings bringing our parliamentary experience to further disrepute.
As can be expected, given such an atmosphere, we never had a single debate on any issue of national importance. From the challenges of climate change, to population growth, to education, to violence against women (the latest statistics showing 80% of our women experience domestic violence), to how to protect and promote our thriving RMG and expatriate labour sectors, etc., in none of these areas have we ever had a serious discussion in the parliament on how to move forward.
With the above brief history of the 23 years of our parliament what, if anything, can we expect from the 10th Parliament that began last Wednesday?
To start with, this is how the present membership of the parliament looks like. Of the 298 seats, Awami League (AL) has 232 seats or 77%, Jatiya Party (JP) 34 or 11%, Workers Party (WP, Menon) 6 or 2%, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD, Inu) 5 or 2%, Jatiya Party (Manju) 2, Tarikat Federation 2, Bangladesh nationalist Front 1 and independent 16 seats or 5.3%.
The current 77% seats shown above for the AL is a false picture as the seats procured by JP, WP, JSD and others were a part of the deal in which the AL conceded those seats to these parties to allow them to enter parliament. So much so that WP, JSD and Tarikat leaders used the AL electoral symbol of “Boat” to win their respective seats, without which they would never have won.
When the reserved seats for women will be proportionally distributed among parties, AL will get another 36 seats, making up a grand total of 268 seats out of 350. Two more seats are likely to be added later. We also know that the 16 so-called independents are all AL 'rebels' eager to return to the party fold.
Jatiya party, which has 34 seats, also came through a process of 'deal' with the AL and as such how “opposing” its role will be as the “official” opposition we will have to see to believe.
It may be argued that what good is it to have a “real opposition” when both AL and BNP boycotted the House for years? While it is true, still under them the various committees performed reasonably well and there were, however marginal, some oversight functions performed by them.
If the President's speech of Wednesday is any measure to go by, the 10th Parliament is likely to devote a lot of its time endorsing everything that the PM does. In the President's speech there was no mention of any mistakes of the past or of the opposition's boycott of the January 5 election. Instead, the election was repeatedly referred to as 'free and fair” and all the blames were put on the opposition for all political troubles. In other words, it fully reflected the government's version of things as is prescribed by the present system. Given that the AL is in full control of the House, it would have been wise on its part to allow some divergent views to be reflected and some conciliatory gestures indicated in the speech. That would have been a more mature stance.
If the fundamental virtue of a democratic governance is distribution of power, if the key to ensuring good governance is “check and balance” of authority, and if the most vital pre-requisite of judicious use of public money is 'transparency and accountability,' then none of these exists in Bangladesh today. The biggest challenge today is how we hold our elected leaders accountable given the existing concentration of power and the total extinction of any accountability mechanism.
The 10th Parliament is neither likely to show us the way nor provide any indication to meet this challenge.
The writer is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.