November 29, 2023
DHAKA – That an election is nothing without the voters goes without saying. And more often than not, young first-time voters can become the deciding factor in the polls since they are most likely to cause a swing towards whichever platform catches their fancy. The vibrancy of an election particularly hinges on these youths, who add to the overall heady atmosphere leading up to voting day. This has been a common phenomenon in Bangladeshi electoral politics, which is why the national elections often take on the mood of a large festival irrespective of religion or race.
But gone are those days. No longer is an election festive in Bangladesh. Nor do the first-time voters show much enthusiasm. More importantly, the political parties, especially the ruling one, care little about the voters. This frustrating trend was clear in the 2014 election—when 153 lawmakers were elected uncontested thanks to the main opposition camp boycotting the polls—and voters were deprived of the value of their vote.
The voting atmosphere, especially since the beginning of what is said to be “modern democracy” in Bangladesh in 1991, has gradually waned and is possibly at its historical low now. The media reported heavily that many voters could not even cast their votes in the 2018 election. This upcoming election, 25 million fresh voters, almost one-fourth of total voters, may cast their votes for the first time.
What’s worrying is that an entire generation has grown up without being accustomed to the actual exercise of elections. It may not sound very alarming, but the impact is severe. If they grow up knowing that public representatives can be elected without voting and that there is no system of accountability, if they grow up in a winner-take-all culture, then the future of the nation is bleak, indeed.
Even more worrying is the fact that youths have turned away from politics out of frustration. We may keep blaming poor politics, corrupt politicians, and a rotten society, but to resolve our problems, we need solid political leadership to steer the nation in the right direction. A bureaucrat, a businessperson, a social worker, or a journalist can only extend their support, but leadership must come from the political figures. Right now, in absence of that lead, the young generation is becoming increasingly disinterested in politics.
Why am I expressing such deep concern? Because another election is due in a month. BNP, the opposition, has announced to boycott the polls, and so, it seems that polling is going to be lopsided again. And if there is no strong political opposition in the battle of the ballots, voter turnout will be less or voters will be deprived of their right.
Recently, I got the opportunity to listen to a bunch of youths at a university programme organised by DW Akademie. They discussed everything from traffic congestion to water scarcity, from psychological issues to medicare facilities—along with voting rights and the electoral atmosphere. What impressed me was that they want to speak up, they want to come up with ideas and solutions, but are not getting the space, or we are not providing it.
One of the participants said, “Everything around us is affecting or influencing our young generation, but we are in pain. We can’t talk.” Another said their generation has never seen a proper election. After the talks, the youths summed up the proceedings saying that the voting process and election system could be improved. They have a myriad of problems, which could be resolved if they only had the chance to talk about it at the right forum.
A fourth of the country’s population is in the 15-29 age group. In numbers, the country’s current youth population is around 45.9 million, according to the census report published by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. While the elderly will certainly provide guidance, the youth must be the foot soldiers, and the relationship should not be just unidirectional (top to bottom) but reciprocal. Whatever approach we have must blend the experience and wisdom of the elderly with the technical savviness and creativity of the youth. This combination is imperative for the advancement of any society. The wider the gap, the poorer the nation will be.
Therefore, we have to keep in mind that youths have been missing out on being part of the democratic process, the voting environment, and rights. They need to connect with a mainstream political process that accommodates diverging and opposing views. There must be a healthy debate of conflicting ideas to enlighten the youth. Otherwise, there won’t be any progress. We will only hurtle back from the light of reason, away from the benefits of a democratic process that preaches equality.