Those who spoke at the roundtable in Dhaka on Saturday unanimously agreed that holding the polls without the Opposition would lead to 'no positive result'.
However, leaders of both the ruling and Opposition alliances, who attended the meeting, blamed each other for the current political impasse.
The citizens urged the two major political parties – Awami League and BNP – to come to an agreement, failing which an 'undemocratic force' may intervene.
The roundtable took place on the day Awami League released its election manifesto and a day before the BNP-led 18-Party alliance is set to hold a march to Dhaka for democracy and a rally at Naya Paltan in a bid to thwart the polls.
The ruling party has already threatened to resist any violence during the Opposition march and rally.
As the two parties prepared for the Sunday showdown, tension gripped the country and public transport started to close down allegedly on orders from the administration.
Fifty-four citizens attended the four-hour-long roundtable on ‘Bangladesh in crisis, Thoughts of Civilians’ at a Dhaka hotel.
Four organisations – Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), Sushashoner Jonne Nagorik (Sujon) and Transparency International, Bangladesh (TIB) jointly organised it.
The participants included veteran lawyer Barrister Rafique-ul Haque, Prof Rehman Sobhan, Prof Abdullah Abu Sayeed, columnist Syed Abul Moqsud, former caretaker government advisors ASM Shahjahan, Moinul Hossain, Hossain Zillur Rahman, Syed Manjur Elahi and Rokeya Afzal Rahman, business leader Annisul Huq and environmentalist lawyer Syeda Rizwana Hasan .
Barrister Haque said, “The polls can be deferred due to the crisis. And a solution to this problem is needed at this juncture. The government should understand that there is no point in scoring in an empty field.”
Hossain Zillur said, “If the Jan 5 polls take place, it will negate the achievement of the anti-autocracy movement of 1990s. That’s why at least a demand to postpone the elections should be made from here.”
The BNP has been on the streets demanding a non-party caretaker dispensation to hold the polls.
But the government decided to hold the elections under an ‘all-party’ interim administration in keeping with the 15th constitutional amendment.
After a ‘multi-party’ cabinet was formed last month and the Election Commission announced the schedule for the parliament polls to be held on Jan 5, the conflict between the Awami League and BNP led alliances deepened.
Leaders of the two parties, however, started negotiations after an initiative by UN envoy Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, but no solution emerged.
The government under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is going ahead with the polls, while the Opposition is determined to thwart it.
More than half the 300 parliament seats have returned winners without a contest.
Expressing concern over the situation, Manjur Elahi said, “The two parties must come to an agreement and the polls should be deferred, otherwise there will be a political void.”
He said, “It won’t be good for the country if both parties fail. Religious fanatics could try to grab power. And if that happens, there will be no rights.”
“We have to solve our own problem. No one from outside can offer the solution,” said Barrister Haque urging the two leaders of the major parties to sit for a talks.
Prosecutor at the International Crimes Tribunal Rana Dasgupta at the roundtable suggested meeting the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader to urge them to reach an understanding.
Hossain Zillur hoped a 'third political force' could emerge.
"Both parties (AL and BNP) are functioning like autocrats. A new concept of reformation must be developed to tackle this situation. And the process to form a third political party must begin as well.”
Hossain Zillur was an advisor in the past military-backed caretaker government, during whose tenure, ‘reformation’ had been identified with the 'Minus Two' formula intended to exile both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia from politics.
Meanwhile, no Awami League leaders attended the roundtable, but some from parties in their alliance were present.
But BNP Standing Committee member Mahbubur Rahman, Vice-Chairman Shamser Mobin Chowdhury and Chairperson's adviser Enam Ahmed Chowdhury were present along with BJP Chairman Andaleeve Rahman Partho.
Shamser Mobin Chowdhury held the government responsible for the current crisis. “Meaningful talks could have taken place if the government was sincere. Now the polls should be stopped as there is no suitable environment.”
But Workers Party’s President Rashed Khan Menon rejected remarks of both the Opposition and the citizens opposed to the polls.
“After coming here, it seems like we are standing very far from reality. BNP boycotted the polls. But no one is talking about why the BNP did not join elections.”
Menon blamed the BNP for continuing strikes, blockades even when the government was having talks with it. “How can discussion take place under such circumstances? Talks cannot take place if you have already taken the decision.”
Solution would not come if the polls is postponed following suggestions from some leading citizens, Menon said.
CPD Executive Director Devapriya Bhattacharya moderated the roundtable which was also attended by former diplomat Faruk Chowdhury, Mahila Parishad chief Ayesha Khanom, architect Mobasser Hossain, former caretaker government advisor Tapan Chowdhury and former BKMEA Presdient Fazlul Haque.
Women activists Rokeya Kabir, Salma Ali, cultural activists Lubna Mariam, Dhaka University teacher Asif Nazrul and BRAC University teacher Pias Karim were present among others.
Journalists Riaz Uddin Ahmed, Mahfuz Anam and Motiur Rahman Chowdhury also attended the roundtable.