Parliamentary reforms: Laws for lawmakers are the crying need

By M. M. Rezaul Karim
Published July 22nd 2003 in The Daily Star, Bangladesh

Give alms to the beggar, money to the poor, service to the needy, health to the sick, knowledge to the ignorant, education to the children and so on and so forth. These are axiomatic truth and acceptable duty for mankind. There is, however, a common element in all these --- one set of people give and another set receive. But what happens if the donors themselves are the recipients, and they give themselves plenty of perks, remuneration and privileges?

This happens to legislators of our and, for that matter, any other parliament. When the issue of enhancing their material benefits and privileges are concerned, some of our parliamentarians become most vocal, prompt and ideal lawmakers. The parliament recently made laws and gave its members and also government Ministers enhanced remuneration, living allowances, house rent, travel allowances, etc. Of course, the beneficiaries had so long received inadequate benefits as members of this noble profession. If the newly-introduced measures increase their efficiency and enable them to perform functions better, it is not only well and good but most desirable. But, is this the case? Will it improve their service, both in quality and quantity? Some wonder. Or, will these impart them greater arrogance of power? One must also take into account the impoverished country of ours which have limited resources that call for optimum utilization among competing needs.

We have, indeed, many illustrious members in the parliament who are sagacious and endowed with rich and varied experience. People have, or at least should have, great respect for members of the legislature who are their elected representatives. The latter are not only supposed to safeguard and promote interests of their constituents, but assist the government by formulating policy and providing guidance for good governance through debate and enactment of law. But how well do they carry out these bounden duties? It is a pity that many of them appear non-serious about the need to be present in the parliament promptly and regularly. It is most unfortunate that quorum in parliamentary sessions take long to form, sometimes longer than an hour. Do these members consider that once they are elected, their responsibility in attending the parliament regularly is over? Are their duties towards their constituents being carried out with fairness, justice and impartiality?

These are some of the questions that agitate minds of the common people. Let us take even a cursory look at our legislators. The majority of them are wealthy, mostly industrialists and business people. During the British regime and for some considerable period thereafter politicians used to be drawn mostly from among the ranks of lawyers, litterateurs, insolvent patriots, hereditary landlords and others. But why has there been a qualitative change? Because, the principal criteria now for nominating a candidate by a political party is his or her ability or prospect of winning the election. The question of commitment to the ideals, dedication to party programs, quality and duration of the service rendered to the party etc. are relegated to a secondary position. Now to win election one needs money and muscle power. If you have money, or can procure it from other sources, muscle can be arranged easily.

This has regrettably been the characteristics of our politics for the past two decades at least and is widely known to people, much to their chagrin. Those who spend that much money for election, they obviously do so with the hope of making good that loss and of repaying the so-called loans from the willing investors. But, members of parliament are provided with too modest means to do so. Yet, they do fulfill their obligations in some way or other and most often accomplish much more. Do they do so by honest means? A big question. Both the present and the previous government sought and obtained lists of property and assets of Ministers and members of parliament. But no such statement was submitted when they left office. This should have been done. And also, as practiced in many countries, such statements should have been made public so that people would have full knowledge of the legitimate income of such leaders. This would, evidently, bridle the greed and corruption of many such people.

People do not want their parliamentary representatives to be deeply engrossed with whatever they are not supposed to do. They are normally provided with funds for development in their constituency. They must use these funds in a fair, just and equitable manner. But do they actually do that, except some honorable members. The legislation made by the legislators some years ago, giving the latter the unusual and highly substantial perk of a duty free vehicle, made the office of a member of parliament dangerously more lucrative. Under these circumstances, one method of holding a check on their alleged unlawful income is to make public their statements of income and assets and to check those against their subsequent gains. Also, a sizable section of members use their sudden elevation of social status as well as newly acquired administrative and financial power to enjoy authority beyond its limits by bullying local administration. They, in turn, get involved with cadres, who tarnish the image of their respective political parties by way of indulging in unlawful activities. The opposition members of the parliament cannot, however, exercise undue influence on local administration, for obvious reasons. But they seek to maintain their traditional cadres, though with understandable difficulties.

The government is generally aware of the misuse of power and unlawful activities of political leaders, but unfortunately fails to implement the decision to curb them. Pakistan government added last year some conditions to the eligibility of parliamentary candidates. The candidates must have a minimum educational qualification of a bachelor's degree and must show evidence of clearance of their utility charges. In Bangladesh, we impose condition on clearance of bank loans or its installment payments. But, such restrictions can address only the periphery of the problems. Only a change of mindset and social sanctions appear imperative to increase the nature and standard of service of the parliamentarians. One may also note that during the past two decades there have been successive changes of government, because the party in power generally becomes unpopular due mostly to the excesses committed by their leaders or cronies. This is a lesson to learn for the major political parties, especially the ruling party. A strict control over the party stalwarts and legislators, who tarnish the image of the party, would make the party popular and increase its chances of returning to power.

Many countries have bicameral legislatures wherein some or all members of the Upper House are nominated. Nominated members generally are highly distinguished citizens drawn from different sectors of the society who are either unwilling or unable to contest in elections. They represent that section of legislators, who exercise check and balance on the Lower House and decide issues mostly on merit than merely on political considerations. But Bangladesh is not a Federal State and has no constituent provinces and, therefore, can not have a bicameral legislature, at least for the time being.

An institutional reform, however, can be undertaken by way of introducing the system of proportional representation in electing legislators. In contrast to the existing British Westminster style of single constituency, under the proportional representation system several members are elected in one constituency, on the basis of highest number of votes received proportionately among the candidates of contesting political parties. The advantage of this system lies in the fact that the candidates contest not as individuals but collectively for all their party candidates together in one constituency. In that event, an individual candidate does not have to work only for himself and, therefore, would deter him or her from using undue money and muscle power. There may be a combination of single constituency and proportional representation to ensure better human materials in the legislature, like in many developing and developed countries.

Another issue that deserves attention of the general public is the tenure of our parliament which is now 5 years. Since 1991, all the political parties, which lost elections, alleged, in varying degrees, that the elections had been unfair and heavily rigged. Though in most cases they later reconciled, but soon started violent movement to topple the government before the end of its tenure. Consequently, demonstrations, hartals and other methods which generally turned violent were resorted to, thereby creating serious political instability, loss of production, thwarting development activities and shying away investment and industrialization. Besides, such movement hindered progress of establishing the desired democratic system and tradition. A reduced tenure of the parliament to 4 years may, therefore, be viewed as a way to a reduced propensity for a movement directed to topple the government prematurely. Instead, the opposition parties would hopefully devote themselves more to propagate and campaign for winning the next election. If the American President can be elected only for a 4 year term and also legislatures of many countries, our parliament can also be elected for the same duration. In politics, nothing is sacrosanct and certainly not the tenure of the parliament, if this serves national interests and promotes democratic values better.

M.M.Rezaul Karim, a former Ambassador, is a member of BNP's Advisory Council.