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Are we ready for bicameralism?

  • Published at 06:03 pm February 16th, 2019
A necessity with legal hurdles BIGSTOCK

As times change, so do our needs as a democracy

Every time the national assembly elections roll around, the demand for a caretaker government becomes one of the main concerns for the citizens of Bangladesh. History has witnessed a great lack of trust between the political parties. 

The oppositions always demand a non-partisan caretaker government, since accusations regarding the fairness of the election can be made if such election is carried out under the rule of a political party and rarely are these accusations completely baseless.

In some cases, demands for even temporary military governance have also been voiced. As a democratic country, the demand for a caretaker government or army government should be the furthest call.

But what could be the possible alternative?

A possible solution can be the introduction of a bicameral parliament in Bangladesh. Jatiya Oikya Front’s manifesto included the promise of introducing bicameralism and it was also promised by Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (Inu) -- a component of the Awami League-led 14-party alliance. Serajul Alam Khan, one of the most important political theorists of Bangladesh, always advocated for the establishment of bicameralism.

If defined simply, bicameralism is having a legislature with two chambers. The UK, US, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Germany, Russia, India, and various other nations have a bicameral legislature.

But, how might a bicameral legislature help improve the transparency and level of acceptance of our elections? We currently have a unicameral legislature, which means our parliament consists of a single chamber. So, when the parliament dissolves for election, there is no active legislative body. This is troublesome, since our political system is a parliamentary one.

In a bicameral parliamentary system, the two chambers have different terms, so there is always a chamber active within the parliament. One chamber can oversee the election of the other, thus the need for a caretaker government can be abolished. This can also provide a check and balance to prevent the potential power abuse of the parliament which is often alleged. This mechanism is known as intra-branch check.

Our journey of establishing a “proper” democracy has been full of obstacles, and our parliament is said to be the most powerful constitutional body of Bangladesh. But where there is power, there is a fear of abuse of that power. Since bicameralism can limit the abuse of such power -- and is believed to be beneficial for democratic practices -- one cannot simply rule out its necessity Bangladesh.

Since its adoption in 1972, the constitution of Bangladesh has been amended 17 times, some of which were declared ultra vires by the Supreme Court, in fact, the parliament has, on several occasions, been accused of making arbitrary laws. Having two chambers in the parliament may provide the law-making process and the constitution-amending process some much-needed solidity.

Of course, there are many challenges in the way of establishing bicameralism in our nation. The doctrine of basic structure, a precedent set by the Supreme Court in the Anwar Hussain Chowdhury v Bangladesh (1989) case [41 DLR (AD) 165], popularly known as the 8th amendment case, could be a big challenge.

To put it in simple terms, the doctrine of basic structure states that there are some rudimentary features of the constitution which cannot be amended due to the supremacy of the constitution. The court provided a list of these unique features, among which “unitary state” is one. So, it can be argued that having two chambers of the parliament may violate this basic structure.

But, on the other hand, it stands to benefit our democracy and efforts towards the separation of power, both of which are also basic features of the constitution according to the 8th amendment case. Therefore, it can be said that bicameralism might, in fact, strengthen these basic structures, instead of violating one of them.

Another potential challenge lies in deciding how the other chamber would be constituted. Our election constituencies have been distributed by considering the population of each constituency, which is also known as proportionate representation.

Since 1972, our population has increased by around 100 million people. The need for another chamber of the parliament is the need of the hour. The constituencies of the other chamber may be distributed through equal representation, by allocating one seat for each district or sub-district, whichever is more preferable. 

There is no denying the necessity of bicameralism in a country like Bangladesh -- where democracy and separation of power are constantly subjected to criticism. As times change, the concept of democracy changes as well, and so do our needs. As a nation, we must adapt to the changing times and understand the need for a bicameral parliament and this may help us to address a perennial challenge of ensuring fairness in national elections. 

Nafiz Ahmed is an apprentice lawyer.

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