Dreamers and dreams of the dummy opposition

There have been all sorts of speculations in the media over the past few days about who will constitute the opposition in the newly formed 12th Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament) and who will be leader of the opposition. Among the members of Awami League who did not get party nomination, but defeated the party candidates in the polls, there are those who overtly or covertly vie to become leader of the opposition in parliament. Yet at the same time, none of those aspiring to be leader of the opposition have taken any initiative to form a separate group with the independent members of parliament.  Of the 62 independent candidates, 58 are of Awami League and are unwilling to relinquish their party identity. So even if the independents form a group, to call it an opposition would be like calling the fruit of an apple tree, oranges.

They are hoping that the prime minister will eventually summon them and tell them to take their independent stands, after which they will form a separate group and play the role of the opposition. So for another term the people will get to see a group of people acting in the role of the opposition. In exchange, these persons who were overlooked by the ruling party or were ostensibly deprived, will be able to enjoy all the benefits and facilities to which the opposition is entitled. Simply put, they want to be a dummy opposition. Such a presumption is not unfounded, given the acting displayed by Jatiya Party as the opposition in the last two parliaments.

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One just has to take a look at democratic countries to understand how important the opposition is in parliamentary democracy. But many of us have forgotten the history of how the opposition in parliament is in our country. It would be easy to understand the matter by just browsing the list of leaders of the opposition on the Jatiya Sangsad website. The name of the leader of the opposition in the first national parliament is not there on the list because there was no opposition nor opposition leader in the first Jatiya Sangsad formed through the election held in 1973.

The first opposition introduced in the Jatiya Sangsad was through the 1979 election held under the military rule of General Zia and it was Awami League that was this first opposition. Asaduzzaman Khan was the leader of the opposition

Awami League won 293 seats in that election. Of the remaining 7 seats, 5 were of independent members and 2 were opposition politicians – Jatiya League leader, veteran politician Ataur Rahman Khan and JSD’s Abdus Sattar. The fourth amendment was passed in that parliament, disposing of all other parties and establishing BKSAL. The first opposition introduced in the Jatiya Sangsad was through the 1979 election held under the military rule of General Zia and it was Awami League that was this first opposition. Asaduzzaman Khan was the leader of the opposition. But just as the present prime minister Sheikh Hasina has created a record by becoming prime minister for the fifth time, she also holds the record of being leader of the opposition three times.

The first time that Sheikh Hasina, as the Awami League chief, became leader of the opposition was during the government of the military ruler General Ershad, under a presidential form of government. The next two times was when the parliamentary form of government was established. If the proceedings of the last two parliaments are taken into consideration along with the degeneration of the parliamentary system that took place, it is evident that the role of Jatiya Party as the opposition and its leader Raushan Ershad as the leader of the house, can be considered nothing other than sheer theatrics. Both the times they contested in the election on the basis of an understanding with Awami League and they were in the cabinet too the first time while being in the opposition as well.

There was no exception this time and they once again entered into a seat sharing understanding with Awami League. As it is, they weren’t very affiliated with the common people. And the government does not even consider them as opponents, as is evident in that fact that despite being absent from the parliament for the past 10 years, BNP is even now the target of all the vitriol of the ruling party and the government.

Jatiya Party has been floundering on the periphery of power. That is why when Awami League offered them 26 seats this time, they were obliged to accept. They were well aware that if would require one tenth of the seats to be recognized as the opposition, but they had no choice. Eventually they managed to clinch only 11. Now they are unable to explain to Awami League why they had to lose their 15 seats. They had depended on the pity of Awami League to be recognised as the opposition in the past, and it’s the same now. But this time they need a bigger dose of pity. Cosmetic efforts to give an essentially one-party parliament a façade of a multi-party parliament, deems unethical.

Such a pathetic predicament of the so-called opposition party in parliament, Jatiya Party, is hardly unexpected in the backdrop of the country’s parliamentary history. But what is unexpected and unacceptable is the hide-and-seek being played by the party’s present leadership. After giving various negative indications concerning the party’s participation in the polls, Jatiya Party chairman GM Quader finally took the decision to join the election. He may have explanations in response to the dissatisfaction within the party, but he did not bother to offer any explanation to the common people regarding his unclear stand.

After the election, now when faced stern criticism and opposition from within the party, he still isn’t explaining anything clearly. In response to allegations from party leaders that he had taken money and also had his wife’s nomination ensured, GM Quader told Prothom Alo, “What evidence or proof is there that I took money?” It is as if the politicians always follow a policy of being transparent about their financial transactions and that of their parties. Is there ever any witness to political horse trading? Only when anyone of the concerned parties is aggravated, does the truth come out.

Then in another interview, this time with Samakal, the manner in which GM Quader spoke about the seat-sharing understanding with Awami League, was shrouded with mystery and insinuation. He referred to the ‘brokers’ of the negotiations as ‘they’, pointing to some invisible influence. When asked who ‘they’ were, he said, “I cannot say that now. I will not speak on these matters. But there were such circumstances, even Jatiya Party leaders were in favour of the election. If not, the party’s existence would be at stake. There could have been all sorts of problems. It was the best choice to take part in the polls for the sake of the party’s politics and survival. Anything else could have been bad for us.”

He did not speak of direct bargaining with Awami League. He referred to a third party, ‘they’. How and why are ‘they’ so powerful that they were able to create a threat to his party’s existence? Every citizen has the right to know their identity. But he kept that concealed.

When it comes to hide and seek, his visit to India last August must also be brought up. At the end of a three-day visit to India, Jatiya Party chairman GM Quader returned to the country on 23 August. He spoke about open talks with important persons of that country. He said that he had gone there at the invitation of the Indian government, but refused to reveal exactly with whom he spoke and the agenda of their discussions. He said, “If they want to make it known, they can. I cannot say anything without their permission.”

Perhaps it is possible only in Bangladesh for a leader of a political party to want to keep secret whom he met on a visit to a different country. Would it be possible to resort to such secrecy or ambiguity without the government’s approval or permission? And how can they expect the people to have trust in such ambiguous politics? Those who truly want to see the self-destruction of the dummy opposition, perhaps will not have to wait for too long.

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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