Parliamentary Reform: Making Sense of Our Successes and Failures | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 30, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, April 30, 2019

Reviewing the views

Parliamentary Reform: Making Sense of Our Successes and Failures

The Parliament of Bangladesh has been subject to a lot of historical, institutional and doctrinal analysis over the years.Authors invariably ended up suggesting varieties of reforms in the form of a to-do checklist on an immediate, short-term and long-term basis. Actual reforms undertaken so far also remain piecemeal, short-sighted, popularity tilted, theoretically flawed and procedurally misguided. This write up proposes that meaningful reform in future would require a sound doctrinal approach suitable to a Westminster style parliament. In this regard, therational choice and historical institutional approaches might prove better than our traditional evolutionary and revolutionary understanding of parliamentary reform. By taking a historical institutional approach, we travel beyond changes by mere chance and accident. We rather investigate why, when and how reforms are proposed, rejected or made.

Evolutionary account of political reform focuses on culturally influenced changes emerging gradually over a long stretch of time. While evolutionary and historical accounts may serve as a descriptive narration of events in a chronological fashion, it does not serve the explanatory and justificatory aspects of reform. Evolutionary theories thereby fail to explain why institutions are created in the first place, why those are maintained and why changes are resisted or even adopted nominally or significantly by the individuals and groups.

Big Bang or Revolutionary approaches on the other hand see institutions emerging suddenly, either by armed revolution or by specially called constitutional conventions or assemblies or by mix of the two. Speaking from a Westminster perspective, revolutionary approaches to reform appear defective for two reasons. Firstly, the revolutionary body or leadership reflects the “general will” of the people at the time of crisis who seeks to stabilise the situation as quickly as possible. Unless bound by exceptional amount of will force, the revolutionary regimes are more interested in achieving the stability at the quickest. Changes brought are mostly crispy, populist, minimal and facial. Secondly, revolutionary attempts have not always resulted in liberal democratic reforms. Emergence of even more repressive regimes is not quite uncommon.

Given the inadequacy of evolutionary and revolutionary approaches, Professor Roger D. Congleton’s Constitutional Bargain Model might offer an incentive driven intermediate form of reforms. Incentive driven explanation of reform reflects a sort of rational choice institutionalism that attempts a trade-off between proposed reform and the price that needs be paid for that. Is the proposed reform profitable for both the reformers (who gain something) and incumbent power holders (who lose something)? Congleton argues that reforms will be bargained over and (occasionally) adopted only when the existing beneficiaries see that their immediate interest remains guarded, though the institution changes.

Historical institutional approach would acknowledge the role of the political context affecting the proposed reform and explain why and how institutional norms and values impact on reform in the way they do. Institutions have structures and procedures side by side with well-defined values, norms, interests, identities and beliefs. Like the constitutional bargain model, the institutional accounts of reforms recognise path dependence of reform initiatives. Acknowledging ‘path dependency’ of reform would help us understand why some attempts fail and others succeed. Reforms would be successful when the path is ready to be altered, under a surmountable amount of political pressure for change.

Therefore, a reform advocate would need to ask and answer three questions - Why reform? Why now? And why some of the reform proposals fail while others succeed? In that sense, reforms will be possible only when the following three conditions are fulfilled: First, there must be a window of opportunity for the reform to occur e.g., beginning of parliament or fortuitous circumstances brewing the climate for reform. Second, there must be coherent reform agenda to provide a package behind which the members of parliament may unite. Third, there must be leadership (political will) behind to take the reform package through the parliament.

Within a Westminster parliamentary set up for example, parliamentary process is being drained into executive dominance. Ministerial responsibility convention is utilised to undermine the accountability and scrutiny of government instead. Partisanship operates to whip and discipline individual MPs. In presence of these institutional norms and values to the advantage of the government and party elites, it appears difficult that there will be enough “political will” to change the status quo. Question therefore is - how could we be hopeful of change in terms of enhancement of parliamentary authority in Bangladesh?

A cursory look over the history of reform initiatives in Bangladesh would reveal that in case of original revolutionary authority of 1972, conditions of favourable climate, coherent package and concrete political will were satisfied and hence the reform was swift and decisive. As indicated in Big Bang theories above, the ‘revolutionary’ changes attempted by military regimes of 70s and 80s ended in enhancing the executive’s authority instead. Climate of change might have been there, but not the coherent agenda or political good will towards the right direction. In case of the revolutionary impulse of early 1990s, climate of change and coherent agenda were there but not the sincerest of political wills to materialise the dream for a meaningful parliamentary system. Since then there have been several donor-led studies into the parliamentary process of Bangladesh. The most robust one was the Strengthening Parliamentary Democracy Project (SPD) funded by UNDP, World Bank etc. Starting in 1997, the project aimed at encouraging changes in the Rules of Procedure and capacity building for the committees and individual members. The project unfortunately ended in such a disarray that UNDP had to discontinue the funding in 2007. In this case we didn’t see the climate, agenda or political will necessary for meaningful reform.

As for the present, our long struggle with successive parliaments suggests that we already know what type of reforms we need. With the installation of a new parliament recently, the window of opportunity is also there. Only thing the advocacy and citizens’ groups now need to do is inducing some willingness in the political force in power. Now the only question boiled to be answered is - Who is to bell the cat?

The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of Law, University of Chittagong.

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