Democracy in party constitutions | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 30, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:47 PM, September 30, 2015

Democracy in party constitutions

A party's constitution encompasses the written rules by which political parties form and organise their affairs. A well-crafted constitution incorporates democratic values and procedures which is an essential first step in party-building. So, political analysts often use party constitutions as a source of data to understand internal behaviour of parties with regards to the practice of democracy. There is a consensus on the issue that party constitution is a useful indicator of changing attitudes concerning the relationships between party leaders, individual members and party organs. Furthermore, rules by themselves can enhance democratic or autocratic tendencies. As a result, these are important aspects in analysing intra-party democracy. Therefore, an ideal or well crafted constitution is assumed to address particular issues, including mechanisms to ensure the rights of the general members including women and minorities, transparent provision on the leadership recruitment, clear mechanism of conflict management and inclusive and decentralised decision-making process.

From the party constitutions of the two major political parties in Bangladesh, AL and BNP, it is found that there are no provisions regarding general members' rights. In fact, none of the two constitutions even contains any such phrase as 'member rights'. In many countries where women and minorities lag behind, political party constitutions provide special provisions, including the quota system. For instance, the African National Congress includes a quota of at least one-third in all its structures, whereas the Indian National Congress ensures the reservation of no less than 33 percent for women in the election of the Executive Committee. Both the constitutions of AL and BNP, include some provisions – to a varying degree – of the 'rights' or 'quota' for women and minorities. In addition to having quotas in the upper stratum of the organisation, BNP has 10 percent quota for women in the National Executive Committee and states that the number of female members will have to be increased by 33 percent by 2020. On the other hand, neither of the party constitutions explicitly mentions any special quota system for the minorities.

According to the National Democratic Institute, the constitution of a political party should typically specify the frequency and procedures of holding its conferences. Both AL and BNP have the provision of holding party conference in their constitutions. For instance, the AL clearly mentions that the council should be organised every three years. BNP, on the other hand, does not mention the frequency of organising their conferences, though in the provision of the election of party head, it states that the party head will be elected for three years by direct vote of the members of the National Council. The provisions in the two major parties of Bangladesh regarding party conference remain vague and leave scope for more centralised decision-making by the party leaders.

In a political party, conflicts may be common among different members or interest groups on various issues; the party constitutions should have provisions regarding these matters. In the Labour Party rules of the UK, for example, the Complaints Committee is responsible for any dispute resolution. Conversely, none of the constitutions of the two major parties of Bangladesh offer any dedicated, independent or representative dispute resolution body. None of the provisions explicitly mention that legal enforcement decisions are equally binding for everybody, including the party executive and party president. 

Transparent provisions on the democratic recruitment process including candidate nomination, selection and voting for parties' executive committees, is very important. The recruitment of both BNP and AL is a problematic issue and provisions for representativeness of leaders within the party and for public office are concentrated in the hands of the party head and few influential leaders at the centre. Additionally, there are limited voting procedures to select the leaders, including the party head, in a democratic manner. A participatory election with credible voting procedure ensures that everybody has a chance to be elected. In the two constitutions, neither of the major parties of Bangladesh includes any provision regarding a secret ballot method for electing their leaders. At the same time, the constitutions are found to be less than conspicuous about the voting procedures. The provision of nominating members by the party head in the national executive level of both AL and BNP further undermines the democratic recruitment process. The accountability mechanism for the national executives of AL and BNP is also completely absent in their constitutions. None of the bodies are accountable to the party members or to the party conference. Additionally, the constitutions do not provide any explicit or independent mechanism to control the body of national executive, paving the way for the possibility of the national executives of both the parties to become autocratic in certain situations.

To ensure decentralisation and inclusiveness within the party, the rights of the party president should be limited, so that he/she cannot yield absolute power of the party. An ideal party constitution ensures the right to the party members to decide upon the party manifesto. So, party constitution needs to mention who is in charge of the manifesto and who has the right to vote. In the constitution of AL and BNP, there is no clear provision for the general members or sub-national units to vote upon the manifesto.

To the untrained eye, the party constitutions of both AL and BNP may seem to contain reasonable elements of democratic ethos. However, when the constitutions are compared to international standards and good practices, they both fall short. The weaknesses that are particularly relevant include candidate recruitment for public and party offices, inclusion of party members in the decision-making process, lack of specificities of voting procedures and ambiguity regarding the scope of power and functions of the party heads. 

The party constitutions of the two major political parties of Bangladesh must thus include the provisions that ensure democratic governance within the parties.

The writer is a Research Associate/Lecturer at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University.

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