Jatiya Party chairman and deputy leader of the opposition in parliament, Ghulam Muhammed Quader, in a recent interview with Prothom Alo, speaks about politics, democracy, relations between the ruling party and the opposition, and the country’s election system.
You recently said at a meeting that Article 70 of the constitution should be cancelled. Did you really mean it and will you table a bill to abolish it?
A presidential form of government prevailed in the country prior to 1971. Then we turned to the parliamentary form of government. But Article 70 has destroyed the underlying spirit of this system. The bottom line in parliamentary democracy is that the government is accountable to the parliament. The constitution and the parliamentary rules maintain that other than the ministers, everyone is a private member.
In other countries, members of parliament can vote against their own party, even against the prime minister. This keeps a balance in power. But that is not possible over here because of Article 70. In our country, the prime minister is also the leader of parliament as well as head of the party. That means all power is concentrated in one person’s hands. The parliament should control the prime minister, but the prime minister controls the parliament here. That is why I have called for abolition of Article 70. I had tabled a proposal to this end in the last parliament.
But given the reality of the situation in Bangladesh, will that happen?
You can’t have dictatorship in the name of parliamentary democracy. The argument put forward in favour of Article 70 is unfortunate. It implies a lack of confidence in the members of parliament. It implies that the people have voted for people who have to be restricted by Article 70. We said, have some trust in the members of parliament. Create the scope for them to take an independent stand, except in the case of the budget and in a no-confidence vote against the government. There will be no problem if Article 70 is removed entirely. Keep in mind, if the election is fair, the people of Bangladesh never make mistakes in their decisions.
Both Awami League and BNP would call Jatiya Party an autocratic party. Now are you placing all three parties in the same category?
The movement against Ershad had declared ‘down with autocracy, and freedom for democracy’. But the system of government that began in the name of parliamentary democracy in 1991, established autocracy, not democracy. During the rule of Jatiya Party, the president wielded all power. The tasks which he carried out with that power, such as a drug policy and the upazila system, were later lauded. But now we have ushered in dictatorship in the name of parliamentary democracy.
You all participated in the election as an alliance of Awami League and now are in the opposition in parliament. Critics say you all are the ‘pet’ opposition of the government.
That’s a misnomer. When we formed an election alliance in 2018, our rivals were BNP and its alliance. But when the results came out, BNP did not have enough seats to form the opposition in parliament. And an opposition is essential to point out the government’s errors and protest against wrongdoings. That is what we are doing. We are speaking in favour of the people. The government is complying with some of our demands and ignoring some. Awami League was a strong opposition during the BNP rule and BNP was a strong opposition during Awami League’s rule. But the parliament didn’t run better than now. When the opposition saw their demands were not being met, they simply boycotted the parliament. We have managed to spurn that culture of boycotting.
You all speak about establishing democracy in the country, so why haven’t you established democracy in the party? The secretary general of the party was changed in the old system. The chairman used his authority to appoint the secretary general.
A political party and a country is not one and the same thing. There are certain rules in the structure of a political party. The party head is given certain powers to run the party. That is in all parties, not just ours. It is wrong to assume that if a party has democracy the country will have democracy too. The elections were held in keeping with the party’s constitution. There was no violation of the party’s constitution.
You withdrew from the 2014 election, terming it as one-sided. Then you contested in the 2018 election and took up position in the parliament as the opposition. Was this election better than the one in 2014? Was Jatiya Party under pressure from the government to move away from its previous decision of not joining the election?
I first contested in elections in June 1996. I defeated the Awami League and BNP candidates to become a member of parliament. It was the same in 2001. In 2008 we contested in the election in alliance with Awami League. In 2018 the election was more or less free and fair in my constituency. In 2014 I boycotted the election in keeping with the party’s decision.
As for pressure from the government, there is always pressure. In politics you have to accept some pressure and ignore some. Politics is a power game.
Protecting people’s voting rights is the essence of democracy. So why did you go ahead and be part of violating those rights instead of upholding the people’s right to vote?
I do not want to speak about the 2018 election separately. There have been questions about all the elections that have been held in our country since its independence. There have more or less always been allegations of rigging in various degrees. The elections that took place under the caretaker governments were less questioned. But in 2007 even that system didn’t work. That too was destroyed. Whoever came to power, resorted to rigging the polls.
The country’s election system has broken down. What can be done?
We always believe in free and fair elections. If we want to see Bangladesh as a republic, then the country must be run by representatives of the people. The interests of the country and democracy must be put before the individual and the party. The leaders of all parties must sit together and come to a decision in this regard. If that is not possible, I do not see a way out. I feel our election system is old fashioned. There are very few countries in the world where this system (plurality voting system) is followed. Most countries have changed their election system and have opted for the proportional voting system. We can do so too.
I say that the election should be based on the party and the candidate. Every citizen should cast two votes, one for the candidate and one for the party. The party candidate will be elected based on the proportion of votes. This will uphold multiparty democracy. If not, the smaller parties will never win in the elections. In the present system, the small parties may form alliances with the bigger parties and the representatives get elected, but later they disappear, get lost in the bigger parties.
BNP supporters will find their alternative in Jatiya Party, not in Awami League
What is Jatiya Party’s politics? You speak of Bangladeshi nationalism. So does BNP. But you have formed an alliance with Awami League who professes to uphold Bangali nationalism.
After the nineties, many people said that Jatiya Party was finished. That did not happen because of our own politics. Jatiya Party has always won a significant number of votes. There are two trends in the politics of all countries and Bangladesh is no exception. Awami League is left of the centre, while BNP and Jatiya Party are right of centre. Awami League’s allies are left-leaning parties. When BNP was in power, it forged alliance with the right wing parties.
Our problem is that after independence, the constitution that was drawn up had no space for right leaning politics. Ziaur Rahman formed an alliance with the rightists and rapidly gained popularity. The right camp got together there. When BNP lost power, Ershad filled that vacuum. Jatiya Party has always filled the vacuum left by BNP in politics.
BNP won the election in 1991 because they got the votes of a large chunk of Jatiya Party supporters. The problem with Awami League is that if all the right votes go against them, they cannot win. It was out of that consideration that Jatiya Party formed an election alliance with Awami League.
Before the election you said you were with Awami League in an alliance and that you may go with BNP too. Why did you say that?
If anyone thinks their alliance or support is permanent, they are mistaken. Jatiya Party can form an alliance at anytime with anyone if it is politically beneficial. We are the second alternative force. The first alternative is BNP. But BNP is without leadership at the moment. The leader who was once uncompromising has compromised and come out of jail. BNP will not be able to hold on to its public support like this. BNP supporters will find their alternative in Jatiya Party, not in Awami League.
The basic narrative of democracy is good governance. But is there good governance in the country?
Good governance means the rule of law. It means establishing a society based on justice. People do not understand socialism or Islamic rule, they want good governance. We talk about democracy, but what we practice is not democracy. We are ushering in autocracy. Power corrupts. More power corrupts even more.
*This interview appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir