The government and the Opposition together make a democracy work. In Bangladesh, the two sides rarely meet, except in street battles. The leaders of the two main rival parties — Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Bangladesh Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party — never meet or even talk to each other. So when Ms Wajed talked to Ms Zia on the telephone last weekend, reportedly for the first time in a decade, it was widely seen as something of a breakthrough. Few had expected that the telephone conversation would end the political deadlock in the country. But it was expected to initiate a process, even if slow, of some sort of reconciliation. True, Ms Zia’s refusal to call off her party’s three-day shutdown resulted in continued violence and killings across the country. Yet, both sides must realize that there is no alternative to dialogue in defusing the crisis that has gripped Bangladesh for several months now. There is nothing unusual about the two sides having very different views on many issues. It is normal in a democracy for the Opposition to take the government to task for the latter’s failures.
However, a democracy offers legitimate options to the Opposition — and the people — to remove a government. General elections are due in Bangladesh by the first half of January. Local elections over the past few months pointed to the growing unpopularity of Ms Wajed’s government. But the elections have to take place for a change of government to happen. And the country’s Constitution provides for the incumbent government to hold the polls. It is, therefore, improper for Ms Zia to insist that Ms Wajed step down and that an ‘interim government’ hold the polls. Ms Wajed’s offer of an ‘all-party government’, which too has no constitutional basis, is clearly aimed at placating the Opposition. But it is never a good idea to take to unconstitutional means in order to strike political deals. It could set a dangerous precedent that unscrupulous politicians and governments might exploit in order to subvert democracy. In fact, the record of the military-backed interim government that reigned in Dhaka before the last general elections should be a warning against repeating the experiment. No matter how difficult the job is, Ms Wajed has no choice but to reach out to her rivals and set the stage for a free and fair poll.