Young people in Bangladesh are poised to be a decisive factor in general elections later this month. Political parties are trying to attract them by roping in prominent filmstars and sportsmen for their campaigns.
Tahmid Arif Newaz gets frustrated almost on a daily basis. The man in his mid-30s is working for an NGO and is irritated by corruption in Bangladesh's service sector. "The system works on bribes," he told DW, adding, "it has grown not only because of these 'money suckers,' but also because of our mindset to get things illegally."
Despite his misgivings, Newaz feels optimistic and is happy with the development of the communication and IT sectors in Bangladesh, but he has some deeper concerns. "I blame the political culture for the expansion of extremism in Bangladesh. Be it local or international, politics serves its own purpose with these kinds of phenomena," he argued.
Like Newaz, many more young men and women in Bangladesh are unhappy with the country's political culture. Jalal Mia, a fish vendor in a local market, told DW that he was unable to cast his vote in a local election, because someone else had done it for him. "In the Upazilla [community-level] elections, my vote was cast even before I reached the poll center," he said.
Bitop Das Gupta, who works for an advertising agency, feels the current leadership is taking Bangladesh towards uncertainty. "I see lack of vision in the education sector, a mediocre mindset and a poor quality of life," he told DW. Similarly,many young people are worried about the lack of political pluralism in the country. Animator Raqib Hasan Apu's biggest frustrations, for example, are religious fundamentalism and the identity crisis that Bangladesh's youth is currently facing.
Public discontent with politics is running so high that many users on social media, including DW Bengali's Facebook page, say they would vote against all political parties in the upcoming polls if they had a choice.
"The biggest challenge for this election commission is to create an environment of confidence that allows voters to go out and vote," Zonayed Saki, a young leftist leader, told DW. "Youths want to go to the polling centers. They want to vote," added the young leader, who is also running for parliament.
The youth will decide
Bangladesh's demography is predominantly young, with people aged between 18 and 65 years constituting around 65 percent of the total population of over 160 million. According to the most recent numbers released by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), almost one third of the total 104 million registered voters are between 18 and 30 years of age. This means that millions of young men and women will cast their votes in Bangladesh's 300 constituencies, where even a few hundred votes may work in the winner's favor.
"Youths are always the decision-makers in Bangladesh," Arif Jebtik, a renowned blogger and activist from Bangladesh, told DW. "In 2008, young people voted for Awami League [the ruling party] because of their commitment to create a digital Bangladesh and to take war criminals to court."
But recently, the streets of the capital Dhaka witnessed two massive protests against the government. One was directed against the system of reserving government jobs for certain sections of the population, also known as the quota system, and another one demanding more safety on roads. "Students came out on to the streets demanding state reform. This is outrage against this government," Shahid Uddin Chowdhury Annie, a young MP candidate from Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), told DW. "They have seen how the opposition's mouths were shut in the last ten years. So they will vote against this ruling party," he added.
But Bangladesh's Energy Minister Nasrul Hamid denied that public outrage would affect the election results. "We also want safe roads. We are not against their demands," Hamid told DW. "You have to see whether the government is taking necessary action or not. And I don't believe that a row of protests by some students reflect the emotion of all the youths of the country."
Hamid said the government had succesfully fulfilled all its commitments and was further canvassing to promote its development initiatives. "We are trying every possible way to attract the youth," Hamid, who is also involved with different youth programs of Awami League, told DW. "We are launching huge campaigns on social media."
Perspectives for the future
Both the ruling Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party have recruited celebrities popular among the youth to run for parliament. These youth icons include sports personalities, singers and showbiz stars. Among them, the most popular person is Bangladesh's one-day cricket team captain Mashrafe Mortaza, who was nominated by the ruling party. "I just answered the call of time," Mashrafe wrote on his Facebook page, as he was criticized for joining politics while simultaneously playing for the cricket team.
Parties are using showbiz stars for their campaigns as well, but blogger Jebtik does not believe that these will have much impact on the decisions of young voters. "In the history of Bangladesh, celebrities have never played a big role in determining who the public would vote for," he told DW. He said that the quota movement, which called for job reservations for certain sections of the population, was popular among the students because there were a lot of educated, unemployed people looking for jobs.
"They want to see the future," Jebtik told DW. "They want a modern Bangladesh. So the youth will carefully consider what commitments the political parties are promising them. They will vote for those who will be able to give them a stable and secure future."