IN defence of its move to restore parliament's authority to impeach Supreme Court judges on grounds of misconduct or incapacity, the government has been trying to draw attention to people's empowerment issue by returning to the Constitution of 1972. People will be empowered, according to the government, if the parliament gets back the powers. This means the more the parliament will be strengthened the more the people will be empowered. This sounds good. It should happen in a parliamentary democracy in which the parliament gets pre-eminence over all other organs of the state. The philosophy behind it is clear. The parliament elected by the people is the highest political institution. It forms the government, ends the government, and holds the government accountable for all its activities on behalf of the people who are the real owners of state power. So, the judiciary, according to the government's claim, needs to be accountable to the parliament.
But due to pervasive political culture to keep the parliament subservient to the executive branch, the government's intention to empower the House, only by restoring the provision of the 1972 Constitution empowering it to impeach SC judges, has been questioned. Some previous instances also reinforce the doubt about the move. Does the government really want to empower the parliament? If so, then why did it ignore all the major moves in the past? Take for example some instances to analyse the government intention.
1. The parliamentary special committee for constitutional amendment at a meeting in March, 2011 discussed a proposition for introducing a system of parliamentary confirmation for appointments to constitutional posts to do away with the possibility for politicisation and controversies over the appointments.
As per the proposition, a parliamentary special committee consisting of senior lawmakers would hold a public confirmation hearing after the government makes an appointment to a constitutional post. If the committee is satisfied after the hearing, it will give consent to the appointment and then the appointee would be able to take the oath of office.
This system, if introduced, would empower the parliament greatly. But the government did not like the idea simply because it did not want to lose the absolute freedom to control the appointments to the SC, chief election commissioner, election commissioners, comptroller and auditor general, chairmen and members of the Public Service Commission, and the attorney general.
2. The cabinet-led by Sheikh Hasina on May 30, 2011 rejected a proposed law that would empower the parliamentary committees to perform their oversight functions more effectively. The law ministry placed the proposal at the cabinet meeting following the recommendation of the chairmen of parliamentary standing committees who had jointly moved for the law under Article 76 of the constitution.
The law would empower the committees to compel witness attendance at committee hearings and production of documents. But many ministers opposed the proposal claiming it would be tough for them to work properly if the law was enacted. The Prime Minister who was presiding over the meeting sided with the ministers and rejected the proposal.
3. The parliamentary special committee for constitutional amendment in 2011 had moved to free MPs from “party shackle” by proposing changes in Article 70. The stringent restrictions imposed therein on MPs made them “prisoners of the parties.” Some eminent jurists who had joined the committee's meeting on April 24, 2011 observed that the parliament was not independent due to the inability of MPs to perform their duties freely. The parliamentary body finally prepared a proposal for allowing MPs to express opinions and cast votes against party decisions in the parliament excepting on three issues—no confidence motion against the government, national budget, and matters related to state security. Unfortunately, the cabinet in its May 30 meeting opposed that move as well.
4. The parliamentary body also moved to end the pervasive practice of prolonged House boycott by reducing the length of absence from parliament. This would put pressure on MPs to return to parliament by ending boycott. But the AL-led government did not agree with the idea.
5. The Hasina-led cabinet in 2011 also rejected the special committee's proposal for restoration of the parliament's authority to remove constitutional officials including Supreme Court judges on grounds of misconduct and physical inability. Rejecting the proposal Hasina in the May 30 cabinet meeting opted to maintain the current provision of Supreme Judicial Council. However, her cabinet on August 18 this year approved a proposal to amend the constitution to restore the parliament's authority to impeach SC judges.
6. The past AL-led government also curtailed parliament's powers to amend over 50 articles of the constitution. The constitution's 15th amendment imposed a ban on amending those articles. This means no future parliament, including the current one, will be able to amend those articles dealing with the principles of the state policy and people's fundamental rights as the chapter dealing with the fundamental rights was made unamendable.
The AL-led past government has done all these ignoring its 2008 electoral pledge to make the parliament effective. The government's latest move has been questioned because it had ignored all the positive moves to empower the parliament. How will the power to impeach SC judges alone make parliament effective and ensure empowerment of the people? Does the government really want to control the apex court by restoration of the parliament's power?
More interestingly, the current parliament, which will amend the constitution to restore its authority, has itself been constituted in a one-sided election denying people their voting right.
The writer is a senior reporter, The Daily Star.