By Najrul Khasru
On 4th January 1642 King Charles I, accompanied by a party of his soldiers, arrived in the House of Commons to demand the arrest of five members of Parliament. Speaker Lenthall in a historic statement refused to co-operate: “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.” This was an extraordinarily courageous stance by a man, six of whose predecessors had been executed by successive kings for disobeying them. But Speaker Lenthall stood his ground and the King left the House empty handed. His immortal words are referred to every time a new Speaker is elected in British Parliament. It is a reminder of a fundamental constitutional and democratic principle that the occupant of the chair is responsible for the defence of the legislature, if necessary against the executive of the day, be it a king or as now a days a prime minister.
In all Westminster style governments, including Bangladesh, Parliament is regarded as the House of the Nation. This is where the elected representatives of the people meet to pass legislation, control public finances, scrutinise government policies, hold government to account, debate public issues and ventilate public grievances. None of these functions can be carried out with any credibility unless there is a fully participating Opposition in Parliament. Only a scrupulously impartial Speaker can ensure such participation. Without an impartial Speaker at its helm, Parliament becomes dysfunctional and the process of democracy stumbles.
It is an understatement to say that Bangladesh Parliament has failed to deliver since the country’s return to parliamentary system in 1991. A cursory glance at the life of the 5th, 7th, 8th and 9th Parliaments shows that far from each successive parliament carrying the baton of democracy one step further, a reverse trend was at play. (The short lived 6th or the current 10th Parliament need not be considered as the both have been the products of highly undesirable election processes; indeed, an aberration of democracy.) The culture of boycott was firmly on the ascendance and by the end of the 9th Parliament it reached an absurd proportion: from 34% during the 5th, to the 43% during the 7th, to the 60% during the 8th and to a staggering 81% boycott during the working days of the 9th Parliament.
Regardless of which party is in Opposition, boycotting Parliament was the norm and the primary reason for such boycotts invariably was the Speaker’s lack of impartiality. Furthermore, the successive Speakers’ apparent or evident bias towards the government severely eroded their authority in the House, consequently whatever little time the Opposition attended Parliament was spent on futile, unproductive and acrimonious exchanges.
It is generally expected that unlike the 10th Parliamentary election, the next election, whatever form it takes, would be a participatory one. But, as things stand, there is no reason to expect that the 11th Parliament would be any less dysfunctional than its predecessors mentioned above.
The question that now arises is twofold: firstly, why successive Speakers have failed to shake off the perception of bias or indeed, inclination to be biased; secondly, how can Bangladesh ensure appointment of a truly impartial Speaker capable of presiding over a buoyant and workable Parliament.
The Bangladesh Constitution simply provides that Parliament shall at the first sitting after a general election elect from among its members a Speaker. What in practice happens is that the new Prime Minister hand picks one of her loyalists to be elected as Speaker. This nomination is faithfully followed by the party MPs while the Opposition in Parliament has virtually no say in the matter. Furthermore, the Speaker remains a party member and therefore subject to party loyalty and discipline. She cannot afford to irk the Prime Minister as such disloyal actions would jeopardise her nomination at the next election and the whole political career. These factors weigh heavily against the occupier of the chair to maintain any semblance of neutrality. The inevitable consequence of that has been while the ruling party uses Parliament to its maximum advantage, the opposition feels it has no meaningful role in the House.
Yet in true parliamentary democracies it is the government of the day which generally finds the Speaker’s rulings to be burdensome. For example, David Cameron, during his tenure, found the current Speaker John Bercow, a Tory MP when elected to the chair, to be a constant irritant, often commenting on the substance of the Prime Minister’s answers. The ministers regularly accuse him of jeopardising government business by allowing too many private notice questions, but he is generally regarded as a great reforming Speaker. “It is thanks to him in large part”, declared the Spectator recently, “that the Commons Chamber again seems like the Cockpit of the Nation”.
There is no universal formula for appointing an impartial Speaker. The countries which can truly claim to be parliamentary democracies found different ways of ensuring and maintaining the neutrality of their Speakers. In the UK, the Speaker is elected through a secret ballot. The successful candidate tends to be a well-respected and independent minded back bench parliamentarian. To stand for election a candidate needs to be nominated by 12 MPs, at least three of them must be members of a different party. Once elected the Speaker, by convention, severs all ties with her political party. At the subsequent general elections the Speaker stands as Independent and the major parties put no candidates against her.
In India’s Lok Shobha the Speaker is elected through all party consultation and is relieved from party affairs. In Canada and Australia, the Speakers are elected through secret ballot but continue to follow party discipline. However, in these two countries the Speakers’ deep sense of integrity generally elevates them above party loyalty. Some aspiring democracies, for example, Zambia and Tanzania, have opted to elect their Speakers from outside Parliament. However, not being elected as MPs, they find it difficult to establish their authority over members directly elected by the people.
That the people of Bangladesh long to see democracy flourishes in their country, can be gleaned from the extraordinary level of interests generated recently in the appointments of the Election Commissioners (EC). The nation’s desire for a free, fair and participatory general election is overwhelming. However, democracy is not just an event that takes place every five years, it is also a process that needs to be nurtured relentlessly. If a neutral EC is the pre-requisite for the delivery of the event, then an impartial Speaker is just as important for the delivery of the process.
The time for Bangladesh to address this is now. One option would be, borrowing heavily from the UK and Indian models, for the two main parties to agree on an outstanding, widely respected and independent minded citizen of Bangladesh and let her stand as an independent candidate at the 11th parliamentary election, unopposed. Once elected, both parties should invite their MPs to vote the mutually agreed candidate to the chair. The Constitution requires a candidate for Speakership to be an MP, not necessarily an MP belonging to the ruling party. If such a method is turned into tradition, it is likely that the boycotts would become a thing of the past and nurturing of democratic process would find an institutional footing in Bangladesh.
It would, however, be naïve to think that the politicians of Bangladesh could accomplish this without intense pressure from the democracy hungry people of Bangladesh. One hopes that such pressure mounts in the coming days and months. If the 10th Parliamentary election diminished Bangladesh’s democratic aspirations by electing 154 members unopposed, then let the 11th parliamentary election herald a new dawn in realising such aspirations by electing just one member unopposed, fit for purpose, to occupy the chair of the Speaker, the Honourable Speaker!
The writer, a British Bangladeshi, is a barrister and a part-time tribunal judge in England.