Parliament at night

Do MPs matter in only nominally democratic countries?

meAt the recent general election in Ethiopia the single opposition party MP lost their seat in the 547-strong House of People’s Representatives. In Bangladesh, the opposition party boycotted last year’s general election and 151 of the 350 MPs were elected completely unopposed to the Jatiyo Shangsad. So both Parliaments are in effect one-party fiefdoms in what are now only nominally democratic countries marred by significant post-election violence.

It would therefore be easy to dismiss the role and work of their MPs as of little import compared to elected members in more functioning democracies. But to do so would be to dismiss some important factors about how MPs work and relate to civil society and their constituents even when there may not be a strong electoral imperative pushing them to do so.

For the last eighteen months in partnership with colleagues at SOAS in London, Dhaka and Chittagong, and the Forum for Social Studies in Addis Ababa, we’ve been involved in a research project looking at the work of MPs in Parliament and in their constituencies in these two low-income countries.

Equality of representation is an important democratic benchmark yet until our election in May the number of women MPs in Ethiopia was greater than at Westminster. The active women’s caucus – including some male MPs – produces regular checklists on women’s issues and developed a five-year action plan to take forward women’s issues.

And in Bangladesh 50 of the 350 seats in the Parliament are reserved for women, enabling the legislature to be more representative. But female MPs in reserved seats represent constituencies roughly equivalent to the size of three non-reserved constituencies yet receive exactly the same funding as those MPs in the smaller territorial seats. Consequently female MPs have less money to disburse at a constituency level than their largely male counterparts in non-reserved seats.

In Ethiopia MPs are legally required to hold two public meetings each year in their constituency to explain the work they have been doing and take questions. Nonetheless MPs in Ethiopia appear to spend much less time in their constituencies than their counterparts in Bangladesh, some of whom court their public assiduously. In the UK there has long been concern that the balance between constituency and parliamentary work may be out of kilter but some of their Bangladeshi colleagues make our MPs look like slackers!

But what explains the nature of this constituency level engagement given the lack of electoral drivers?

At one level the visits in Bangladesh are about repetitive communication. Bill boards across the constituency reinforce the message and the presence of the MP in his or her community, and convey the achievements of the government particularly in relation to progress towards the Millennium Development Goals such as reducing child mortality and increasing school enrolment of girls.

But they are also about disbursement of funds. In addition to influencing resource allocation for poverty reduction programmes by different government agencies, MPs have access to a range of funding sources over which they have direct control including a discretionary grant and constituency development fund. Many MPs also appear to spend significant amounts of their own money helping the poor in their constituencies, something that is particularly noticeable as MPs increasingly have a business sector background and in the context of a national culture in which those who are rich and powerful are considered to have a duty to provide support to others in times of need. Thus, in focus group discussions MPs are regularly referenced as having ‘a kind heart’ for their acts of benevolence such as helping with wedding costs or educational expenses.

The result is that MPs in their constituencies often appear to be a cross between an all powerful, modern Mughal and a non-religious Shaman style figure, their approach to funding disbursement both reinforcing and disrupting traditional patronage and power relationships depending on the recipients and the complex web of local political relationships in play.

The research team presented these and other early project findings at the recent international Workshop of Parliamentarians and Parliamentary Scholars organised for the twelfth time by Professor the Lord Norton of Louth, with support from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and held at Wroxton College.

Our preparations for the conference were unfortunately disrupted when two of our principal investigators – one from Bangladesh and one Ethiopia – were denied visas to come to the conference, despite working on a project funded by grants from DfID and the ESRC. Unfortunately we are not the only research team affected. Denial of visas to eminent academics to come to conferences in the UK is an increasingly worrying trend that will harm educational collaboration and our ‘soft power’ status unless the government gets to grips with the situation. It’s hardly joined up government if one department helps fund local researchers to work on important issues related to future governance and development, while another denies visas to enable them to attend a conference to report on that work, something promised in the project proposal from the outset.

Nonetheless, the conference was helpful and fellow attendees from around the world helped to both challenge and hone our thinking. In the coming months as we continue to conduct constituency level research we’ll be looking at why the approach of MPs to their constituencies is so different in each country. We will be asking whether there is anything distinctive about the MP as a patron compared to other local figures of importance. And we’ll be looking at the nature of the incentives – beyond electoral success – which are shaping how MPs do things at the constituency level.

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