A look at the current parliamentary make-up of Bangladesh
Among many other takeaways from the December 30 general elections, the one which interests me most is the diminishing presence of a parliamentary opposition in our country.
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party that has ruled this country thrice (including a brief stint during the short-lived sixth parliament) since the restoration of democracy in 1991 ended up bagging just five seats in the current 300-seat parliament.
Four of its alliance partners in the Jatiya Oikya Front electoral combined won two more seats. These are the only seven seats that the opposition political parties won in the 11th parliamentary polls which witnessed a landslide of this magnitude in the ruling alliance’s favour for the first time in 45 years. Awami League, the party that has been in power for the last 10 years, and its Grand Alliance swept 288 seats in this election while independent candidates won three other seats while voting remained postponed in one seat and results withheld in another. Ershad’s Jatiya Party, very much a part of AL-led Grand Alliance, managed to secure 22 seats.
In the first ever election after Bangladesh was liberated in 1971, the ruling party won in 293 constituencies leaving only seven for others. That’s why the first parliament constituted in Bangladesh in 1973 had no party officially recognized as an opposition in the House.
Since then, the number of opposition seats saw a gradual rise, 39 in the second parliament in 1979 and 76 in the third parliament in 1986. It shows that AL managed to secure 39 seats as opposition even during its most trying times, which was not in its best shape after the assassination of Bangabandhu in 1975.
Given the political climate existing then, AL drew much criticism by participating in the third parliamentary elections held in 1986 under Ershad’s autocratic rule.
BNP was among other major pro-democracy parties then, waging a movement against Ershad’s dictatorial rule and boycotted the election.
AL under Sheikh Hasina’s leadership then won as many as 76 seats, emerging as a formidable opposition. However, it was a short-lived parliament and Ershad went ahead with another parliamentary election in two years’ time in 1988 -- this time boycotted by all anti-autocratic parties including AL, BNP, and Jamaat.
But it was the ingenuity of Ershad and his men that they managed to have a “pet” opposition in the form of an ASM Rab-led electoral combine -- which, of course, fared badly, bagging just 19 seats. The number of independent candidates winning seats was even higher at 25. Yet, Rab had the privilege of playing the role of the opposition leader.
Afterwards, the democratic practices evolved in a way that, since the restoration of democracy in Bangladesh in the post-Ershad era, all the parliaments have so far witnessed parties returning to Jatiya Sangsad’s opposition bench gradually getting weaker.
This appears to be a kind of “diminishing opposition” phenomenon -- not very helpful for a thriving multi-party democracy. In a multi-party democracy, multiple political parties across the political spectrum run for national elections and all have the capacity to gain control of government offices, separately or in coalition.
That’s the beauty of it. People having all sorts of differences in their political views and philosophies can always make a choice from a variety of parties, all of which are diverse in their policies and vision.
Since 1991 we’ve had as many as seven parliaments elected up until December 30 last year. In the fifth parliamentary elections in 1991, AL emerged as opposition with 88 seats under its belt but its seats fell down to 62 when it emerged as opposition the next time in the eighth parliament in 2001.
Similarly, in the case of BNP -- the party secured as high as 116 parliamentary seats when it had to sit in the opposition bench in the seventh parliament in June of 1996. In between March 19 to 30 that year, there was a short-lived sixth parliament, which was formed only to pass the 13th amendment to the constitution, incorporating a provision of the much-talked about caretaker government to oversee the next general elections.
After their 2001-2006 rule, the next time when BNP had to sit again in the opposition bench in the ninth parliament, it fared poorly, bagging just 30 seats. BNP boycotted the 10the parliament in 2014 and then the party hit a historic rock-bottom in the just held 11th parliamentary elections by managing to get five seats only.
BNP and its partner parties in the Dr Kamal Hossain-led Jatiya Oikya Front, however, made it clear that the December 30 election was a sham and a fresh election has to take place under a caretaker arrangement if the voters’ true desires are to be reflected.
With a trend of diminishing parliamentary opposition in Bangladesh, the December 30 election has taken us to such a place where we must ask: Who will play as the opposition in the 11th parliament?
A day after his younger brother declared unequivocally that Jatiya Party would be very much in the treasury, HM Ershad reversed the decision on Friday, announcing his party would sit in the opposition bench in the 11th parliament.
This is quite similar to the “dual” role Ershad’s JaPa has been playing since the 2014 non-participatory elections. Lawmakers of this party had been there to play both opposition and also do some ministerial assignments as well during the 2014-2018 period.
This practice is unknown to the Westminister system. There is little doubt though -- a diminishing opposition and a dual role-playing opposition wouldn’t add much as far as Bangladesh’s democratic emancipation is concerned.
Reaz Ahmad is Executive Editor of the Dhaka Tribune.