Glorius days: Rare aura of unanimity seen in 1991 Parliament

Mostafa Kamal Majumder
When the Bangladesh Nationalist Party won the 1991 parliamentary elections held on 27 February initially securing a total of 141 seas against Awami league’s 88, many in political circles thought the party fell into a dilemma about its stand on the form of government. The BNP constitution stood for a presidential system since its inception in 1978 under its founder President Lt General Ziaur Rahman. BNP’s position in the Parliament was consolidated through the joining of three CPB members and several independents plus its share of 28 women’s seats out of 30. Two other women’s seats were shared with Jamaat which with 18 general MPs supported the BNP to form government with Begum Khaleda Zia taking oath as Prime Minister.

With Khaleda Zia taking charge as the chief executive of the government, many thought that BNP’s political shift to a parliamentary form of government was a matter time. But the party constitution was not amended when BNP formed government. There was nothing wrong in this because under the presidential system that was in force for 12 preceding years there had always been a Prime Minister in the President’s council of Ministers. To begin with Bangladesh had a presidential form of government headed by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, as during the War of Liberation the provisional government was formed in 1971 putting Bangabandhu to that position. Syed Nazrul Islam as Vice-President was the Acting President of the provisional government which continued in power when the country achieved a win in the War. After his return from Pakistani jail Bangabandhu took charge as prime minister and Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury was made president. However, the presidential form of government was restored through the Fourth Amendment in 1975 and continued to be in force when Khaleda Zia took over as Prime Minister.
After coming to power BNP remained silent on the issue of the form of government, its leaders only saying that the issue would be resolved in Parliament. A switch over to a parliamentary form of government required the party to get a constitutional amendment passed with a two-thirds majority support of the 330-member House. But the BNP had only 164 members whereas it required at least 220 votes. On the other hand if it opted to continue with the Presidential form all it needed to do was to hold a presidential election and ensure an honourable return of then Acting President Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed to his position as the Chief Justice of Bangladesh. Deputy Leader of the Opposition in Parliament Abdus Samad Azad had by then given a notice for introducing a private member’s bill on a constitutional amendment to switch over the parliamentary form and the bill was under scrutiny of the Parliamentary Committee on Private members’ Bills and Resolutions. An analysis of the bill by the present author revealed that it was a true copy of the 1972 Constitution.
The matter was discussed at the BNP Standing Committee on June 7. The committee felt that if the party decides to opt for a Parliamentary form it would prefer inclusion of certain new provisions including further restrictions on floor crossing and balancing of the powers between the President and the Parliament. The BNP standing committee was not sure about support from the opposition Awami League and thus preferred to have a dialogue with them. Judged from another angle, opting for a Parliamentary system was politically convenient to the BNP as the party would get the post of President easily because in that case Parliament will elect the President. Why then risk a direct election of the President. BNP thus introduced its Constitution amendment bill seeking a parliamentary system on 02 July that year. On the same day the treasury bench also introduced a bill for ratification of all actions of Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed as Acting president. On the other hand the Constitution Amendment Bill that AL leader Abdus Samad Azad had given notice about was introduced in Parliament two days later. Four Constitution amendment bills were introduced by Rashed Khan Menon of Workers’ Party. Jamaat-e-Islami introduced its bill on caretaker government. All the bills were referred to a 15-member select committee for scrutiny. At the select committee Jamaat’s bill on caretaker government was rejected by all other parties. On the other hand Rashed Khan Menon’s proposal for reducing gaps between two sessions of Parliament to 60 days from earlier six months was incoporated in the 12th Amendment Bill.
Not sure about support from the AL about the Constitution 12th Amendment Bill, BNP started lobbying with Jatiya Party and the smaller parties. Jamaat with 20 MPs had earlier assured support. The initiative proved fruitful as JP with 35 votes under its command and the smaller parties promised support. With this the BNP felt comfortable to get the 11th Amendment Bill for ratification of all actions of Acting President Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed and the 12th Amendment bill for a switch over to the parliamentary form, passed. At this stage Awami League leaders changed strategy and spoke in Parliament asking the government to ignore the support of the JP which ‘represented autocracy’ and instead offered to support the passage of the bills on the plea that they had been votaries of parliamentary democracy all along. This was termed a blow to the JP by Barrister Moudud Ahmed, then leader of the JP Parliamentary Party. JP members voted for the 12th Amendment Bill, but abstained when the 11th Amendment bill was passed, because in their opinion Acting President Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed was not fair in his dealings with the JP and its leader, ex-president Hussain Muhammad Ershad. The epoch-making bills were passed on 06 August in an aura of an unprecedented political unanimity but clearly sidelining the JP.
The Fifth Parliament which adopted the epoch-making bills was unique in that it was formed after the dissolution of the Fourth Parliament of the Jatiya Party Government following nine years of movement for restoration of democracy. It led to the creation of almost equally strong two parties – the BNP and the Awami League – which was considered ideal for the development of a cabinet system of government. The small parties elected to the House supported either of the parties on issues and were open-minded. They worked for consensus building by helping remove differences between the two major parties. Smooth passage the two Constitution amendment bills reflected its quality. In fact after the passage of the bills on voice votes there was a visible competition as to who would sign the record book first by quickly walking to the respective lobbies from the chamber of the Parliament.