Lawmakers’ role limited to 'yes' or 'no'

Jatiya Sangsad (Parliament)
File photo

The parliament has been in session regularly. Laws are being passed too when necessary. Unlike in the past, nowadays no walkout or boycott of parliament happens. Yet, questions often arise on how effective the parliament is and how much the parliament is ensuring the accountability of the government’s executive branch.

Like the 10th parliament, the government and the opposition have merged the 11th parliament. The roles of the members of parliament are limited to 'yes' or 'no'. No debate or discussion was seen on any specific proposal on important contemporary issues at this parliament. There has long been no discussion on Article 71 which covers supplement questions for ministers and emergency matters of public importance. No discussion on adjournment motion had been held for five years either. On top of that, most of the parliamentary standing committees remain inactive.

Question of ensuring accountability

In the parliamentary system, a parliament has two main functions; one is to enact laws and another is to ensure accountability of the government, but the 11th parliament could play no effective roles over the past five years on this matter. There has been discussion on law enactment and that had little effect on the formulation of law. Laws have been formulated as the government wanted, and no major change to laws has been seen in the face of objections from the opposition. Though the opposition ‘carefully criticised’ the government on several issues they could not remove the tag of the ‘domestic opposition party’.

The 11th parliament started its journey on 30 January 2019. The function of this parliament was limited to many extents for two years because of the coronavirus pandemic. The tenure of this parliament will end on 29 January 2024, and the 12th parliamentary election must be held within 90 days prior to the tenure of the existing parliament coming to an end. To date, 23 sessions including two special sessions of the 11th parliament have been held and the 24th session will begin on 3 September. Another session may begin in October.

Jatiya Party is the main opposition party of the current parliament. There were only seven MPs, including a lawmaker from the reserved seat for women, from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is the major political rival of the ruling Awami League. But BNP lawmakers, who criticised the government on various policies and decisions, resigned from parliament on 11 December 2022 following a party decision.

Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) published the “Parliament Watch” report on the functions of parliament regularly. TIB released the report on 0 September 2020, analysing the first to fifth sessions of the 11th parliament. They said the first five sessions of this parliament were not up to the expected level in terms of law formulation, representation of the people, as well as ensuring accountability of the government.

There was not much change in parliament’s ’ roles in the years that followed. However, chief whip of parliament Noor-e-Alam Chowdhury told Prothom Alo the main two functions of parliament – law formulation and discussion are going well. This parliament passed the largest number of laws including several good ones. Even parliament had been in session amid the coronavirus pandemic and MPs passed the budget risking their lives. All things considered, this parliament was effective, he claimed.

Limited to 'yes' or 'no'

According to the parliament secretary, to date, 130 bills have been passed by this parliament, and the roles of the lawmakers were limited to ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes in passing these bills. Previously, 12-13 MPs including 2-3 BNP lawmakers proposed amendments to bills, since BNP MPs stepped down, 8-10 MPs including Jatiya Party, Gono Forum and an individual MP placed various amendments to the bills. In most cases, ministers did not accept those, and amendments that had been accepted were mere corrections of words, full stops or commas. Thus, no major changes happened to the bills. Other than the minister, no ruling party lawmakers had been seen proposing amendments to bills or participating in discussions expect some special occasions.

The parliamentary standing committee scrutinised the bill before placing it in the House, and no major change happened there either. The ‘Appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner and Other Election Commissioners Bill-2022’ is one of the bills drawing maximum amendments. Twelve lawmakers from the BNP, Jatiya Party, Workers’ Party, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JASOD), Gono Forum and an individual placed a total of 76 amendments to this bill, and the law minister accepted 22 of them, thus no major changes to the bill.

In a speech of the opposition deputy leaders in parliament, GM Quader highlighted how much role MPs can play in formulating law in parliament. He told the parliament on 10 April this year that under the existing parliamentary system, the parliament is capable of nothing except for legalising the law formulation.

On the other hand, a negative example was set during the formulation of the Bank Company (Amendment) Bill, passed in June. Ruling party lawmaker Ahsanul Islam proposed an amendment to increase the tenure of banks’ directors to 12 years straight. Parliament accepted the proposed amendment and passed the bill, drawing criticism outside the parliament.

No debate on important issues

Parliament moves an adjournment motion suspending regular activities to discuss any contemporary important issue us. But no discussion was held during the adjournment motion at parliament, and the 11th parliament is no exception. BNP lawmaker Harun or Rashid moved an adjournment motion demanding a discussion on the flood situation of June 2022, but it was not accepted since no adjournment motion can be moved to discuss general issues during the budget session. He also brought another motion to discuss ‘rampant lootings’ and mismanagement in the power and energy sector, and no discussion was held on it either.

Besides, the rules of business also state about holding a discussion on emergency matters of public importance. Discussion on matters of public importance has been kept suspended most of the time during the 11th parliament. Section 147 of the rules of business states a motion can be moved to discuss a matter related to the public interest, and such discussion did not happen that much.

In August 2022, opposition lawmaker Mujibul Haque brought such a motion under this section to learn about measures taken by the government to tackle various crises the coronavirus pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war and essential price hikes, and parliament discussed this motion, which was an exception. Other than this, no discussion or debate on any contemporary important issue was held at parliament. Opposition lawmakers gave speeches on point of order various times, but the government was seen replying nothing to those most of the time.

Rumeen Farhana was BNP’s whip at parliament. She told Prothom Alo the present parliament is completely ineffective. The ruling party has an absolute majority in parliament. So, a few lawmakers of the BNP wanted to hold ministers accountable, and the ruling party lawmakers started shouting and spoiling the environment. When any question was asked, ministers avoided those talking about the past and irrelevant issues. She added.

Role of opposition

The role of the main opposition in parliament Jatiya Party is in question. A speech of the party’s general secretary Mujibul Haque clarified their role. He told parliament on 27 November 2021, “Honorable Speaker, speaking for the government such has been our situation is that people call us the agents of Awami League.”

Jatiya Party chairman GM Quader had been active in criticizing the government on various issues outside parliament, but he was not seen being that vocal in parliament.

However, Jatiya Party general secretary Mujibul Haque overbred the 11th parliament was moderately effective because the Jatiya Party as the opposition spoke for the people in parliament.

Inactive parliamentary standing committees

Fifty parliamentary standing committees were formed within 10 days of the 11th parliament beginning, 39 of them are related to various ministries and the remaining 11 ones are formed based on the nature of their business. Though committees were formed hurriedly, most of them have not had that much activity in the past three years.

Parliamentary committees are to hold at least a meeting in a month, review the ministries’ operation, and investigate irregularities and corruption if needed. Most of these committees are not following these rules. Several committees did not even sit for over a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. As of August this year, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Accounts has held a maximum of 119 meetings while, among the ministry-related committees, the Standing Committee on Ministry of Shipping held a maximum of 60 meetings.

Besides, Standing Committee on Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism held 80 meetings, the Standing Committee on Ministry of Women and Children Affairs 39 meetings, Standing Committee on Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change 38, Standing Committee on Ministry of Liberation War Affairs 37, Standing Committee on Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief 35, Standing Committee on Ministry of Foreign Affairs 34, Standing Committee on Ministry of Youth and Sports 32, Standing Committee on Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs 32 and Standing Committee on Ministry of Home Affairs held 30 meetings. On the other hand, the Committee on Government Assurances was active among the committees formed on the nature of business and this committee held 34 meetings.

Other than these, ministry-wise committees including Standing Committee on Ministry of Finance, Standing Committee on Ministry of Food, Standing Committee on Ministry of Land, Standing Committee on Ministry of Commerce, Standing Committee on Ministry of Post, Telecommunication and Information Technology were apparently inactive as none of these committees even held 30 meetings in the past five years.

These committees hardly investigated irregularities and corruption of the ministries. Irregularities in the health sector came to the limelight during the coronavirus pandemic, but the parliamentary committees concerned neither held meetings nor investigated it.

An economic crisis has persisted in the country for a long due to the coronavirus pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, but the Standing Committee on Ministry of Finance never discussed it and this committee held only 11 meetings in the past five years. There was no discussion on essential prices at the Standing Committee on Ministry of Commerce either.

Lawmakers also attended less a parliamentary committee. Records of the 128 meetings of 10 parliamentary standing committees last year showed only two meetings were attended by all members of the respective committees. A total of 105 lawmakers were members of these 10 committees, and 36 of them had attended less than half of the meetings of their respective parliamentary standing committees.

Neither the present parliament plays an effective role in the formulation of law nor in ensuring the accountability of the government, said parliament researcher and former professor of Chittagong University Nizam Uddin. He told Prothom Alo the absence of a real opposition is the reason for it and no parliament can be effective without an opposition.

This report appeared in the online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna