THE Parliament passed the Representation of the People Order (Amendment) Bill 2013 on October 28. Among other changes it has annulled the previously mandatory provision that only candidates who had completed at least three years as a member of a registered party could be nominated for election as a member of the parliament (MP). The act is yet another example that our political leaders are determined to make the House an unreachable destination for genuine politicians, most of whom cannot afford nomination business. This is a self-defeating act -- a step ahead in pushing politics far the people, off the people, buy the people.
Paragraph 6 (1) (j) of the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act, 2009, which now stands void, required that a person shall be disqualified for election if s/he “has not been a member of a registered political party for three years,” provided that this shall not apply to an independent candidate and those nominated by a political party during the period of three years from the date of its first registration with the Election Commission (EC).
The annulled provision was aimed at creating the space for individuals politically groomed in a political process to enter into the parliament -- the highest seat of public representation. It had opened an opportunity for democratic practice within the political parties, indispensable for a healthy, constructive and people-oriented democratic culture.
On the other hand, it had the potential to arrest the growing trend towards the capture of the House by intruders without a minimum level of political experience riding on factors outside politics, essentially power of money -- clean or corrupt -- and by means of nomination business and blatant use of money and muscle in election campaign.
That politics for many has become a profitable investment is well-known. There is no way of generalisation, nor can all politicians or business persons be viewed in the same category. But the trend is clear -- what is politics is business, and what is business is politics. A huge transformation has indeed taken place since independence, steered initially under military/quasi-military rule followed up unabashedly after democratic transition. In the first Parliament of Bangladesh (1973-75) the ratio of MPs with business as primary occupation was below 18%, which rose to 26% in the 2nd (1979-82), 38% in the 5th (1991-95), 42% in the 7th (1996-2001), 58% in the 8th (2001-6), and now 57% in the 9th Parliament.
No one can question the right of anyone to enter into politics, nor can it be ignored that doing business in Bangladesh without being dragged into politics-bureaucracy-business triangle is fast becoming an unrealistic proposition. But the problem gets institutionalised when such blanket provision is created for intrusion into politics without the necessary background or experience. Status of politics and public representation then tends to be viewed as a mandate to make profit out of the investment.
Abuse of the entrusted power for policy influence bedeviled by conflict of interest, capture of business deals, rent-seeking from recruitments in the public sector, involvement in tenders and other stages of implementation of development work in local levels, and extracting benefits from service delivery in education, health, local government and even safety net programmes are only a few examples of such money-making machines.
The way the amendment has been brought at the eleventh hour of the 9th Parliament also begs the question of credibility. Just to recall, the provision was among reforms that evolved in a participatory process initiated by the then EC, engaging relevant stakeholders including media, civil society, and most importantly political parties. Subsequently, when the ordinance was ratified by the 9th Parliament, it reinforced the national consensus and political ownership of the importance of the provision. What then prompted it to be annulled now, and why such an amendment of national interest has taken place without consultation with stakeholders, particularly the EC and political parties, is not known, unless it is designed to promote vested interests.
It is interesting, not surprising though, that the opposition coalition has also failed, or perhaps didn't want, to see the amendment as an issue of importance. The reason is not far to seek. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party is in fact well ahead of other political parties with highest percentage of MPs having business as primary occupation -- 73% against 56% of Bangladesh Awami League.
It is even more disappointing that the EC appears to have found it acceptable. Other than passing the buck to the Parliament they have not raised a voice against the amendment. If the EC didn't find any role for itself in this amendment on the ground that it came from the Parliament, the question has to be raised as to how they considered it appropriate to propose a set of other amendments, including the intensely controversial idea of annulling paragraph 91(E) which entitled the EC to take action against violators of electoral code of conduct. Thankfully, they eventually stepped back from the idea of curtailing their own authority. On this occasion, they could have helped rebuild public trust at least by expressing concern. A credible EC cannot afford to remain passive when the floodgate is opened for influence of money and muscle in politics in general and election in particular.
Fair enough that the provision introduced before the 2008 elections achieved almost nothing, nor was it expected to deliver results in one election. But it had definitely made an opening which, if sustained, could yield positive results over the years to come. However, coupled with such other provisions as raising the campaign expense limit to Tk.25 lakhs and undermining the previously mandatory provision of consulting local level workers and leaders for party nomination at national level, the amendment will be hugely detrimental to the prospect of controlling the influence of money -- black or white -- in politics.
The political space in the country is clearly being converted into an exclusive zone of those who treat politics as a profit-making enterprise while genuine politicians face the threat of becoming an endangered species.
The writer is Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh.