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Bangladesh - Government

In the forty years since independence Bangladesh has rotated between electoral democracy and military rule, and between a parliamentary and presidential system of government. The frequent systemic changes have hindered the institutionalisation of democracy and adversely affected the development of an effective parliament. In recent years there have been some positive developments. Elections are being held more regularly and the parliamentary committees are becoming more active.

Upon gaining independence in 1971, Bangladesh established a multiparty parliamentary democracy. The constitution adopted in 1972 set up a system which invested the parliament with supreme legislative power, with executive power in the cabinet, headed by a Prime Minister commanding the support of the majority in parliament. The President, elected by parliament, was the ceremonial head of the state.

In January 1975, the first parliament elected in 1973, amended the constitution. It introduced a one-party presidential system, curtailing the powers of the parliament and made the President, who was to be elected directly by popular vote, the executive head of the government. In August 1975, the military intervened and ruled the country either directly or indirectly for the next fifteen years. The presidential system was retained by the military rulers.

Ziaur Rahman, who took over as President and Chief Martial Law Administrator following the 1975 coups and counter coups, used martial law proclamations to amend the constitution and end the one-party rule introduced by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman via the Fourth Amendment in January 1975. The martial law proclamations inserted the word "in the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful" at the beginning of the preamble of the constitution, replaced secularism with trust and faith in Allah, defined socialism as social and economic justice, and replaced "Bengali" nationalism with "Bangladeshi" nationalism. After Rahman founded the BNP, the party won the parliamentary election in 1979 and ratified the Fifth Amendment. Besides sanctioning all government actions after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's assassination, the amendment restored freedom of the press, judicial independence, and ended both the one-party system and specifically the ban on religion-based political parties.

On 03 January 2010, a panel of the appellate division of the Supreme Court decided in favor of a petition submitted by the Awami League-led government that aimed at nullifying the Fifth Amendment of Bangladesh's constitution. Prime Minister Hasina told parliament in January 2010 that her government wanted to restore the 1972 constitution, which has Bengali nationalism, secularism, socialism and democracy as the state pillars, without affecting the sensitivity of the people. Law Minister Shafiq Ahmed told the media that the Fifth Amendment's annulment restored secularism and socialism as state principles and banned religion-based politics and parties. He added the caveat that the constitution would retain the words "in the name of Allah" in its preamble and Islam would remain the state religion per the Eighth Amendment.

Military rule was finally overthrown by a people's movement in 1990. Electoral democracy as well as the parliamentary system were restored in 1991, and have continued till the present with the exception of a two year rule (2007-2008) by a military-backed caretaker government.

Today the president, while chief of state, holds a largely ceremonial post; the real power is held by the prime minister, who is head of government. The president is elected by the legislature (Parliament) every 5 years. The president's circumscribed powers are substantially expanded during the tenure of a caretaker government.

Under the 13th Amendment, which Parliament passed in March 1996, a caretaker government assumes power temporarily to oversee general elections after dissolution of the Parliament. In the caretaker government, the president has control over the Ministry of Defense, the authority to declare a state of emergency, and the power to dismiss the Chief Adviser and other members of the caretaker government. Once elections have been held and a new government and Parliament are in place, the president's powers and position revert to their largely ceremonial role. The Chief Adviser and other advisers to the caretaker government must be appointed within 15 days after the current Parliament expires.

The prime minister is appointed by the president. The prime minister must be a Member of Parliament (MP) who the president feels commands the confidence of the majority of other MPs. The cabinet is composed of ministers selected by the prime minister and appointed by the president. At least 90% of the ministers must be MPs. The other 10% may be non-MP experts or "technocrats" who are not otherwise disqualified from being elected MPs. According to the constitution, the president can dissolve Parliament upon the written request of the prime minister.

On 02 July 2011 the Bangladesh Parliament (Jatiya Sangsad - JS - the House of the Nation) passed the Constitution (15th Amendment) Bill-2011, paving the way for abolition of the system of non-party caretaker government for holding free and fair general elections on completion of tenure of an elected government. The system of the non-party caretaker government had been in operation under the 13th amendment to the constitution that had included in 1996. some bitter experiences had been faced by the country’s political leaders during the three caretaker governments in the country.

The legislature is a unicameral, 300-seat body. All of its members are elected by universal suffrage at least every 5 years. The Members of House of the Nation elect another 45 female members. Thus, the total number of members of the House is 345.

The parliament's overall performance in terms of its core functions such as legislation, budget, scrutiny and oversight lags far behind citizen's expectations and global standards. The opposition repeatedly boycotts parliamentary sittings abdicating its watchdog role. The parliamentarians remain largely unaccountable for breaches of parliamentary codes of conduct.

The parliament does not adequately represent the nation's social diversity. Women, minorities and the resource poor are persistently underrepresented. Parliament amended the constitution in May 2004, making a provision for 45 seats reserved for women to be distributed among political parties in proportion to their numerical strength in Parliament. Several women's groups have demanded direct election to fill the reserved seats for women.

Bangladesh's judiciary is a civil court system based on the British model; the highest court of appeal is the appellate court of the Supreme Court. At the local government level, the country is divided into divisions, districts, sub districts, unions, and villages. Local officials are elected at the union level and selected at the village level. All larger administrative units are run by members of the civil service.

There was a functioning bail system in the regular courts. For example, the courts granted bail to almost all of the officials and former officials accused of corruption under the caretaker government; however, the system sometimes moved slower in cases that carried political implications. Additionally the attorney general ordered that his office have the final decision on bail cases in violation of the code of criminal procedure. Arbitrary and lengthy pretrial detention continued to be a problem. There were an estimated two million pending civil and criminal cases. A 2008 estimate from the International Center for Prison Studies found nearly 70 percent of prison inmates were in pretrial detention.

The law provides for an independent judiciary, but in practice a longstanding temporary provision of the constitution placed the executive in charge of the lower courts, judicial appointments, and compensation for judicial officials. Legislation from 2007 separating the judiciary from the executive remained in effect. Despite ostensible separation of the judiciary from the executive, the political authority made judicial appointments to the higher courts and allegedly influenced many judicial decisions on politically sensitive cases, including decisions regarding bail and detention for political opponents of the government.

For the convenience of administration, the country is divided into six administrative divisions, each placed under a Divisional Commissioner. Each division is further sub-divided into Zilas(Districts). After the administrative re-organisation carried out in 1984, the country has been divided into 64 Zilas. Each Zila is headed by a Deputy Commissioner who is assisted by other officials. Each Zila is further divided in to a number of Upazilas (Sub district) headed by Upazila Nirbahi Officer. Upazila is a tier of rural local government and there are 482 Upazila Councils in Bangladesh. In April 2009 the parliament passed the Upazila Parishad (Amendment) Act to reintroduce a tier of the local government abolished in 1991. The act made it mandatory for the updazila parishads, or councils, to accept the advice of the local MP. Under the act, upazila parishads could not communicate directly with the central government without their local MP's advice. As a result, the upazila parishads remained largely dysfunctional, as the government failed to give them clear authority to carry out administrative and development activities at the subdistrict level. The reluctance of bureaucrats to work under the authority of the elected leaders of the upazila parishads and the domination of the MPs were partly responsible for the slow progress of this tier of local government.

There are 4,498 Union Councils in Bangladesh. A union is comprised of 10-15 villages. It is the lowest tier of rural local government that is elected. In 2003, women candidates actively competed and were elected to fill over 12,000 union council seats reserved for women. After about 18 years, elections were held in Upazila (sub-district) Councils in January 2009.

The traditionally highly centralized government and the lack of political will to decentralize remain major obstacles. Likewise, local governments need to be more effective and accountable. Local governments are among the few government entities with the credibility, real desire and capacity necessary to deliver the basic services required to make democracy work and satisfy citizen demands. The scope of local powers needs clarification and the provision of commensurate resources must be expanded. Creating the conditions for functional democracy at the local level will empower both the sub-national governments as well as the citizenry at large.

The transition to democracy in Bangladesh has been inconsistent and unstable. In general, democratic institutions remain weak and confidence in the government is low. Bangladesh faces problems of widespread corruption, lack of clear representation of citizen interests by their elected officials, a highly centralized government, abuse of human rights – including trafficking-in-persons – and a nascent local government movement that is still learning to exercise its rights. A political class that cannot look beyond immediate conquests to form a coherent development agenda further aggravates this situation. As political infighting drags on, the country’s economy suffers, affording scant opportunity for a better life to the majority of the population often living in abject poverty.

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Page last modified: 16-12-2013 18:47:53 ZULU