Youth in Bangladesh democracy | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 17, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 17, 2011

Youth in Bangladesh democracy

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Youth is harbinger of any change. It's particularly true of democratic transition and consolidation. Our democratic revival in 1990 was achieved mainly through widespread student movement. Most recently, the 'Arab Spring' or the sweeping collapse of authoritarian regimes in some countries of the Arab world can largely be attributed to youth outburst against autocratic repression.
Demographically, Bangladesh is a predominantly young country. So, youth aspirations and demands are important in demand side of governance. Simultaneously, how government policies and initiatives bear upon the country's youth should be an important consideration in the supply side of governance. But we generally see that issues of concern to the youth are not given as much importance as warranted.
In this write-up, I draw upon 'The Daily Star-Nielsen Democracy Poll 2011' to explore how our democracy fares among the country's youth. It's important since the future of democracy will rest on their shoulder. If the Bangladesh youth do not find the existing political system responding to their needs then we can't exclude possibility of youth revolt like Arab Spring. It should be noted that the above poll didn't highlight youth as a specific survey population. But it divided the respondents into two groups -- those aged up to 30 years and those who were above 30years of age. The first group can be considered as youth and their ratio of the total survey population is 43 percent. So, this write-up deals with responses of the up to 30 age group.
Let's begin with what the youth understand of democracy as a political system and hence what are their expectations of it. The single majority response was 'do not know' or 'cannot say' made by 24 percent altogether. This might be lack of awareness or not caring enough. But overall awareness about democracy is not so hopeless since collectively 60 percent defined democracy in ways that somewhat meets standard definitions: right of free expression (18 percent), equal rights of all (15 percent), freedom of movement (16 percent) and casting ballot (11 percent).
But when the youth are asked about 'the essentials for democracy,' they emphasise more on some of the above issues but include couple of other things. Major responses in this case are: free and fair election (66 percent), freedom of religion (48 percent), freedom of expression (43percent), maintenance of law and order (43 percent), fulfillment of basic needs (40 percent), equal rights of all (38 percent) and absence of bribe (35 percent) and no violence against women (31 percent).
The latter findings of 'The Daily Star-Nielsen Democracy Poll 2011' show that there is gap between what youth expect out of our democratic system and what they experience of it. Above 80 percent youth agrees that governments can be changed through free and fair elections.
But their response about state of other essentials of democracy (on a 5-point scale from 'completely false' to 'very true') is not generally in the affirmative. In some cases, while 'very true' and 'true' responses are singularly majority, they are out-weighted when negative responses are added together.
For example, when asked whether 'government institutions and officials (court/police/bureaucracy) serve the poor' -- collectively 50 percent youth responded affirmative and 49 percent responded negative. Opinion that 'the government is responding to meet the basic needs of people' is also a close call when broadly divided into affirmative and negative, 49 percent and 50 percent respectively. So, about half of the youth surveyed do not find government working for poor and do not see their basic needs fulfilled.
Some other responses reveal more dissatisfaction. Majority 79 percent youth said that officials have to be paid bribe. Another large number, 63 percent do not believe business/economic activities can be carried out without fear of extortion. Only 37 percent think that they can complete their education without disruption while majority 59 percent do not think that is possible. Majority 68 percent feel that police and security services harass people as opposed to 30 percent who feel the opposite. While 95 percent youth feel safe at home, much lesser 62 percent feel safe in the street. Insecurity is worse for young women half of whom (52 percent) do not feel safe to go out after dark.
With the institutions' inability to deliver, youth are losing interest in democratic participation. Although 59 percent feel close to a political party, 94 percent are not member of any. While 77 percent voted in the last election, 89 percent didn't participate in any protest or demonstration in life. Majority of them also did not participate in solving community problems (69 percent) and attended any political meeting (85 percent). It seems that democratic participation of the youth is still mostly ritualistic i.e. supporting a political party and voting them in general election. The country's youth are still far from a wider exercise of democratic participation that manifests active citizenship.

The writer is Senior Research Associate of BRAC University's Institute of Governance Studies (IGS).

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