History of our parliaments is full of frequent ups and downs. We started with a war time presidential system (Proclamation of Independence, 1971), swiftly opted for parliamentary system (Provisional Constitution, 1972) and then again turned back to a one-party presidential system (Fourth Amendment, 1975). The one-party system soon was replaced by dictatorial martial law system which later turned into a French presidential system with a controlled legislature (Fifth Amendment, 1979). The system moved back and forth again in 1986 (Seventh Amendment). Passing through lots of confusions and controversies, the original scheme of parliamentary system was revived in 1991. With the military dictatorship re-appearing again for a two years' span (2007-2008), the parliamentary system since 1991 remained highly illiberal and led to an elected one-party rule in parliament.
The first parliament (1972-75) did not have substantial representation from the opposition. Yet, marred by subversive political opposition outside the parliament and economic depression, the president decided to discontinue the Westminster system and introduce a one party presidential one. The second (1979-81), third (1986-1988) and fourth (1988-90) parliaments worked under military dictators declaredly hostile to the principles of 1972 Constitution. Those therefore had very little to offer in terms of law making and accountability except being used as rubber stump bodies for the presidential actions, Ordinances and Orders. The presidential prerogative of Ordinance making as articulated in Article 93 of the Constitution of 1972 was used so extensively as to challenge the parliament's primacy as law making body.
In 1991, Bangladesh completed its 'full constitutional cycle' when the fifth parliament (1991-1995) restored the parliamentary system as devised in the original Constitution of 1972. Fifth Parliament attracted a serious, principled and vigilant opposition in the House. It also witnessed some significant show of back bench autonomy and cross-party polarisation on some issues. Yet the parliament was dominated by political forces more or less faithful to the previous military rulers' presidential tendencies. Articles 70 and 93 therefore took a lead role in parliamentary affairs. Later on, facing continuous boycott and en masse resignation of the opposition parties in demand of a non-party election time government, the promising Fifth Parliament had to die before its tenure. A one-sided election was held and the ruling party of the short lived sixth parliament (1996) was forced to pass the Thirteenth Amendment introducing an election time non-party caretaker government.
The seventh parliament (1996-2001) was led by the political force more or less loyal to the 1972 scheme of parliamentary system. It also comprised the largest opposition party in the history of Bangladesh. It became the first parliament in Bangladesh's history to live its full tenure. Use of Article 93 Ordinance power decreased substantially during this parliament. It also contributed in stabilising the committee system and oversight function of parliamentary committees got some foothold. However, like its predecessors, this parliament also was hit by irresponsible opposition and ruling party members' literal adherence to Article 70.
The eighth parliament (2001-2006) was dominated by forces hostile to the 1972 ideals. It was affected by insignificant strength of opposition and ruling party's reluctance to allow the committee system work as a meaningful accountability tool. The problems with non-party caretaker government also returned as the ruling party attempted to temper with who becomes the head of the election time government. Faced with violent street agitation, a military backed so called caretaker government took over for next two years.
The ninth parliament (2009-2014) constituted at the end of military backed caretaker government again was successful in institutionalising the committee system. This time again the parliament was dominated by the forces loyal to 1972 scheme. Yet, the marginalised and consistently boycotting opposition remained a problem as before. As a reaction to the previous government's tempering with the system, the ninth parliament abolished the caretaker system. The leading opposition party boycotted the next election and an effectively domesticated opposition party took its place.
The tenth (2014-2018) and also the incumbent eleventh (2019) parliaments therefore mark the opposition less parliament subservient to the invincible leadership of the Prime Minister. Interestingly, the tenth parliament was moderately successful in invigorating the committee system and the current parliament has made a significant leap in this direction by allocating the committee chairs to the influential and experienced senior leaders from the ruling party and also by allocating a good number of committee chairs including the public accounts committee to the opposition party members.
Though the committee system is gradually taking its root and the promulgation of Article 93 Ordinances has dried up by now, parliament's stature as a meaningful law making and accountability body remain distant. Absent the non-party election time caretaker government, there is a big question mark over the way the parliamentary electoral process would work in the days ahead. Yet, it may be argued that the 1972 scheme of parliamentary government is far from being obsolete. There are at least three areas to look in.
First, weaknesses in the parliament vis a vis the executive should be seen more as weaknesses within the party system and addressed accordingly. Secondly, increased attention to parliament's representation and public mobilisation role could redeem some of the frustrations over its failure in law making and accountability area. Thirdly, exploring the scopes of greater public access to parliamentary debates and committees would help challenging the elite domination within the institution and ensuring its greater democratisation.
Constitutional principles need long, patient and consistent adherence before they yield in practice. Unlike other established bi-partisan parliamentary systems, Bangladesh's post-independence political polarisation marks the lack of minimum consensus over key national issues including the 1972 system itself. The current but decisive edge in favour of the pro- 1972 scheme forces, therefore, mark a great opportunity for the original scheme to bloom in its full potential. It is paradoxical but very probable.
The writer is a Doctoral Researcher (Parliament Studies), King's College London.