For a Sixth Republic . . .
A Sixth Republic is what we need in Bangladesh today. And what have been the five earlier republics? Before we go into answering the question at length, let it be said without ambiguity that, save for the First Republic, which was the nine-month Mujibnagar period, none of the republics have worked to popular satisfaction. Here's showing you how:
The Second Republic, which covered the period from January 12, 1972, to January 25, 1975, was buffeted by crises both within and without. It had its achievements, which achievements were again undermined by a wobbly administration coupled with the multi-faceted efforts of its enemies to run it down. The result was a state of emergency imposed in December 1973.
The Third Republic was extremely brief, seeing that it covered the period of the hapless Baksal system between January and August 1975. You could go into a whole lot of academic debate on whether the Fourth Amendment which brought the system into place should have been there at all. There was supreme irony in the fact that those who had inaugurated a cabinet form of government in early 1972 moved, in a mere three years, towards a wholesale change in the nature of the republic.
The Fourth Republic, roughly speaking, stretched from August 15, 1975, to December 6, 1990. It happened to be the darkest period in Bangladesh's history, seeing that within its time span the entire Liberation leadership was eliminated through conspiracy. This republic threw up such unsavoury realities as the Moshtaque cabal, the Zia and Ershad dictatorships, the strutting around of assassins, the coups and counter-coups, the formation of political parties in the cantonment, the rise and rehabilitation of the 1971 collaborators and a wholesale overturning of the principles of the War of Liberation.
The Fifth Republic commenced through the general election of February 1991, the expectation being that finally the country was on its way back to a proper, functioning and therefore stable democracy. But that hope has turned out to be a non-starter, with politics becoming increasingly entrenched in the hands of a leadership, in both major parties, that has refused to promote or encourage the growth of a new generation of leaders. Politicians have dwindled in number, their old places in a dysfunctional parliament taken over by businessmen and superannuated civil and military bureaucrats. Corruption has eaten away at the vitals of society. The nation has turned increasingly tribalised.
Which is why the Fifth Republic will not work, much though civil society and the international community might want it to. Which is why a Sixth Republic now becomes necessary. And what ought to be the underlying principles or characteristics of such a republic? Here is a general view of what might go into a making of the system, in the belief that the new republic will be in a position to do what the earlier republics have failed to: it will purposefully push the country into stability, in much the same way that Charles de Gaulle inaugurated a new France through his Fifth Republic in 1958.
First, the electoral system in Bangladesh will call for radical change, through doing away with the first-past-the-post system and replacing it with proportional representation. That will effectively mean electing political parties rather than personalities to parliament and apportioning seats on the basis of the totality of votes gained by the parties. And parliament could transform itself into a two-chamber structure, the better to ensure consensus in the making and implementation of legislation and executive policy-making.
For a Sixth Republic to yield results, the powers of the presidency will need to increase to a point where the president will be in a position to exercise authority in such areas as foreign affairs and defence. Let the president be elected by direct adult franchise, in the way parliament is elected through a free exercise of the popular right to vote. The prime minister, in this republic, will exercise authority without the arrogance that has come attached to the office since 1991.
The rules governing attendance in parliament by lawmakers will be tightened, to a point where a period of absence exceeding ten days without a credible explanation will lead to the parliamentary seat being declared vacant. By extension, in this instance as also in others, the Election Commission will have its power unchallenged by individuals and other institutions. And why not have the chief election commissioner and commissioners chosen for office through thorough parliamentary scrutiny conducted by both ruling and opposition lawmakers? Presidential appointments to the higher judiciary, in order to ensure maximum public satisfaction, must undergo full and absolute scrutiny by parliament before the appointments are ratified.
In a Sixth Republic, devolution of power to the local bodies will be of essence. Such devolution will not only mean a responsibility on the part of elected local authorities to administer villages, unions, upazilas, et cetera, but will also serve as much needed preparation for future leadership. The law will ensure regular and transparent elections within the parties as a way of ensuring a dynamic party system in the country.
Parliamentary deliberations in the Sixth Republic will freely and openly debate all issues of national significance, with its various committees empowered to call individuals, including the prime minister, to hearings that may be necessitated in the public interest. In the event of a conflict on policy between the president and parliament, a referendum on the issue in question will be arranged by the Election Commission.
Finally, the Sixth Republic will function on the lines of the principles enunciated in the nation's proclamation of independence in 1971. The secular, Bengali nature of the constitution and the republic will be guaranteed in perpetuity, with all ethnic and religious denominations privy to equality in every area of social, economic, cultural and political activity.
Thoughts, simply thoughts. And yet perhaps we could mull on them, given that our experience with governance in its tried and tested forms has not quite enthused us about their efficacy?
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.
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