If democracy is to be understood, as articulated by John Stuart Mill, as the embodiment of “government by discussion,” then there is no doubt that recent initiative taken by the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina to mitigate the prospects of one-sided election is a step in the right direction. The bitterness and the mistrust shared by the rival political forces – namely Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – has a long history, but the time is ripe for that the political parties demonstrated statesmanship and leadership so that the present political deadlock over the institutional arrangements needed for holding free, fair and participatory elections are agreed upon and electoral democracy is sustained through compromise. Two primary issues have given political analyst some hope – at least if measured solely by the behavior of the government. First, the Prime Minister has requested the primary opposition to name elected representatives from its camp so that they are included in the Cabinet of the Interim Government. Second, the opposition parties requested that an alternative institutional arrangement be put in place.
Yet, even after the emergence of such positive developments within the political arena, the prospects for meaningful discussions between the political stakeholders aren’t good. The primary opposition BNP after consultation with all crucial members of the 18 party alliance has reiterated its demand for a pseudo caretaker government made up of un-elected individuals from previous caretaker regimes. While both proposals are a step in the right direction, the demands articulated by the opposition faces constitutional bottlenecks. Two issues are worth deliberating. The Supreme Court of Bangladesh in an earlier verdict declared the caretaker government to be illegal given it allows non-elected individuals to govern, which violated the fundamental principles of representative democracy. Furthermore, since the present parliament is in its penultimate stage, it is unlikely that there is sufficient time for any such constitutional amendment to move through parliament.
Thus, while recent developments have provided some hope to ordinary citizens for an amicable solution to the current political impasse, it has nonetheless reached a new type of “deadlock” where political rhetoric is exchanged in softer tones, but the fundamental differences prevail. When political stakeholders fail to evaluate the historical failures of a nation in the correct light, historical tragedies are bound to repeat themselves. However the only pragmatic way forward requires that the opposition alliance comes to terms with the fact that the current government cannot simply allow the re-instatement of a pseudo caretaker government. A constitutional amendment of such nature (even if it is possible) will be viewed by all critical stakeholders as a political defeat, which Awami League cannot rationally allow or accept during such a critical juncture. Hence, only if a solution is explored from the current offer of the government, with necessary changes that allows the creation of a level playing field, there remains some possibilities for progress. And that progress is possible only through meaningful, open minded dialogue. For now that may be a bridge too far.