For the first-time voters

Mridul Chowdhury
Published by the Daily Star on 28 Dec 2008.

A documentary film recently produced by Jagoree, a non-partisan political youth group, summed up many of the frustrations of today’s youth — many feeling that they are too insignificant a factor for change. In a Prothom Alo organised discussion with the first-time voters in Chittagong, the biggest frustration that came out of the 50 discussants was the fact that they felt that this election presented no substantial difference in the quality of candidates.

A very similar frustration was voiced in a Channel I program called “First Voter” — that ironically, in many cases, their choices are from those who were recently in jail on charges of wide-scale corruption, or alleged war criminals, or leaders of past autocratic regimes. They felt that this was only an indication that Bangladesh was still in the same “rat-hole” it was in prior to 1/11.

But is this enough reason for us to lose heart? I think not, because:

-The political parties are worried because they are not sure how big a political force the youth really are. One major reason for this is that 32% are first-time voters and about 52% are young. The parties are in a competition to lure the youth with promises of everything under the sun, starting from guaranteed employment to favourable business loans. This is our chance to put their trepidations to rest once and for all, and send out a clear message that we are a force to be reckoned with. And we can only do that if we vote in large enough numbers.

– The parties are also worried that they can’t predict the behaviour of this vast youth group. We, the youth, generally tend to have relatively less “blind” party loyalty compared to our parents’ generation, because they have had strong emotional attachment to either Sheikh Mujib or Ziaur Rahman. We are able to question the candidates more objectively and less emotionally. We can more easily rise above political bickering than our parents’ generation could. These are not traits that the parties are fond of — but again, the only way that we can make it count is if we vote in large enough numbers.

– We also rule by sheer numbers. In Bangladesh, citizens under the age of 40 are about three times more than those over 40, and only 3% are above 60. But the sad reality is that our politics is almost completely dominated by this “minority group.” However, that is soon to change. In the next 1 or 2 elections, many of the old political guardians will inevitably have to make way for younger blood — a trend that has already started in this election, with many new faces contesting. In constituencies where we have fresh young candidates as choices, this is our chance to get to know more about them and give them a thumbs-up if we feel they are worthy.

Active youth participation in this election has far-reaching consequences for the future of politics in this country. Even if, at a constituency level, it does not have too much of an effect in this election, the longer-term impact of the youth voting en masse can be significant for subsequent elections and policy formulation. Democracy does not come in a day and it definitely does not come through military-coordinated interventions. The last two years have raised our hopes too high, but the failures of the caretaker government should not take away our hope that we, as young citizens, can make a difference.

Active participation of the youth in politics is important for another reason: to uphold our identity, and to prevent our country from being gobbled up by religious extremists. The culture and identity of Bangladeshis have increasingly come under threat by such groups. The first-time voters should take an assertive step to define what kind of a Bangladesh they want to live in, and casting a vote is as effective a way as any to voice that opinion.

Significant political changes happen only a very few times in a lifetime, and they often happen unexpectedly. Obama’s rise to power is the most cited example of the difference that youth activism can make. But look at a country closer to ours, and more like ours in terms of vulnerability to corrupt politicians and military interventions — Thailand. No one could have imagined even a few weeks ago that Thaksin loyalists could be ousted. But the general citizens, a majority of them in their 20s and 30s, achieved the unthinkable by holding up Thai airports for days, that eventually led to the installation of a 44-year old prime minister with a clean record.

In 1971, the Bangladeshi youth were called upon to take arms. Today, we are being called upon again — for a much easier task: to cast a vote. Our respected freedom fighters left us a nation “free’ from external enemies; now we have to continue the fight to free the country from its internal ones. As a Jagoree member put it: “In this fight, there is no room for apathy — cast your vote as the first step to becoming a citizen who counts.”

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