General Election: Political Parties and Manifestos
– Dr. Akhter Hussain –
On the 30th of this month, the 11th parliamentary election is scheduled to be held. There were a number of developments in the political arena in the last few months. Widespread apprehensions were there that there could be violence on the questions of various demands of the political parties on how to hold the election. The other apprehension was that some of the political parties may not, in the end, participate in it. However, all these apprehensions are wrong and the election is going to be held with the participation of all the registered political parties of the country. However, political developments mentioned earlier include the formation of alliances of political parties, and the holding of dialogue with the party in power on several thorny issues that needed to be resolved to create a level playing ground for all the parties joining the election fray. However, good sense prevailed among them and all the parties agreed to participate in the election within the purview of the provisions of the Constitution. Accordingly, the Election Commission declared the election date. Nonetheless, the scheduled date of the election was deferred by a week at the request of the political parties. As the election date was approaching, the political parties and alliances declared their election manifestos for the consideration of the voters. Here, it should be noted that election manifestos are statements by political parties in which they state their aims and policies that they intend to implement if they are elected to form the government. In election manifestos, generally many issues that are of crucial importance to the nation are included. We can also term them as “pledged wish-lists” of political parties aspiring to implement them once they form the government after winning the general election.
It is perceived that the election manifestos of the Awami League, the Jatiyo Okiyo Front, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jatiyo Party (JP) particularly deserve special attention and review by the voters. These three parties have previously won national elections and formed governments. The Jatiyo Okiyo Front is a new comer in the political scenario. The Front is a platform of political parties which was formed recently and is led by the Gono Forum President, Dr. Kamal Hossain. It includes the BNP, the Gono Forum led by Dr. Kamal Hossain and Jatiya Oikya Prokriya, ASM Abdur Rab’s Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD-Rab), Mahmudur Rahman Manna’s Nagorik Oikya, and Abdul Kader Siddique’s Krishak Sramik Janata League. After a series of negotiations between them, it was formed on October 13th, 2018. Here, it needs to be mentioned that the Jamat-i-Islami Bangladesh is no longer a registered political party, but its candidates are contesting elections with the election symbol ‘Serfs of Paddy’ of the BNP. After the election of 2001, the BNP formed the government in coalition with Jamat. The other interesting thing that should be mentioned here is that the Jatiyo Oikya Front’s constituent parties have also chosen the BNP’s election symbol for contesting the general election. However, though the JP is a part of the Grand Alliance led by the Awami League, it has retained its own election symbol ‘Langal’ or ‘Plough.’ Although the BNP is part of the Jatiya Oikya Front, it announced separate election manifesto having commonalities and differences with the Front’s manifesto. The election manifestos of these parties and the Front addressed a number of issues concerning national life and pledged various initiatives which they intend to implement in the future if they are voted to power. However, this write up will only look into some of the issues that may require constitutional amendments and are likely to have far reaching consequences for the government and the state.
Both the Jatiya Oikya Front and the BNP have promised to bring in a balance of power between President and Prime Minister, and restricting the prime minister’s tenure to two consecutive terms. Both manifestos also pledged to introduce a bicameral legislature, and to amend article 70 of the constitution. The Jatiya Oikya Front also raised the issue of the formation of an election-time government. It also stated an all-inclusive national commission would be formed to test the viability of creating provincial governments throughout Bangladesh should the party come to power. The Jatiyo Party (JP) announced an 18-point election manifesto. In a rather revolutionary move, the JP pledged to turn Bangladesh into a federal state from the existing unitary one. There would be a central government, which will be called the "federal government," and provincial governments for the provinces. It was stated that the eight administrative divisions will be turned into provinces. They will be named, “Uttar Banga,” “Barendra,” “Jahangirnagar,” “Jalalabad,” “Jahanabad,” “Chadra Dwip,” “Mainamati” and “Chattala.” The central and the provincial governments will have separate legislatures. It also pledges to increase the number of reserved seats in the parliament from 50—currently reserved for women only—to 80. The Awami League election manifesto does not include anything that would require amendment to the existing provisions of the Constitution.
A close scrutiny of the above pledges raises a number of concerns. In the Parliamentary form of democracy, the prime minister is the real executive. Under this system, all actions of the government are taken in the name of the President, the chief executive, but only on the advice of the Prime Minister. Additionally, the President can dissolve the Parliament and call for a new election only on the written advice of the Prime Minister. If any changes are brought to the two entities’ existing relationship by amending the constitution, a dysfunctional government will be created that might turn Bangladesh into a failed state in the future. The limiting of the terms of the Prime Minister to two consecutive ones also seems to be illogical with no such similar example of a functioning Parliamentary form of Government. England (the birthplace of the Parliamentary system of government), in its recent past, witnessed Tony Blair being elected for his third term. In Malaysia, under the same system of government, Mahathir Mohammad served as prime minister for about 20 years. In our neighbouring Indian state of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu served as the Chief Minister for about 30 years. Moreover, in developing countries, charisma plays an important role in politics. The provision of a fixed number of terms in countries where such leaders are involved in politics would be unjustified because it will deny the people of the services of leaders of their choice. However, the term limit of the President in most countries is fixed at two terms. Regarding Article 70 in our Constitution, it should be mentioned that this has been included to prevent horse trading of the parliament members to ensure the continuity of the government. We had a highly negative experience of this practice when Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan. The introduction of a bicameral legislature also requires amendment to the Constitution. JP’s election pledge of turning Bangladesh into a federal state sounds hollow and lacks substance. Creating provinces with a separate legislature might create disunity within a highly homogenous country. Seed of discontentment might lead to secession of the provinces, threatening the very existence of the country. The inclusion of the concept of an Election Time Government would again open up another political debate and its resolution might need constitutional amendment.
The Oikyo Front and the BNP mentioned in their manifestos that there would be no age limit for entering into government jobs except for the police and the armed forces. This is also quite confusing and has an unclear intention. In our country, the civil service is a career job. There is also no provision of lateral entry in our government jobs. The civil service is also organised under various cadres for ensuring specialisation. A lifelong career also creates cohesion among civil servants. Now, if there is no age bar for these jobs, the above mentioned merits of the current system will be lost. However, the question of the protection of the rights of the minorities has received due attention from all parties. Establishment of a dedicated ministry or a commission for minority groups has been pledged. This is a positive consensus that needs appreciation.
(The different sources of information are acknowledged with gratitude)
The writer is a columnist and Professor, Department of Public Administration, University of Dhaka and Member, National Human Rights Commission, Bangladesh.