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     Volume 5 Issue 103 | July 14, 2006 |

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Cover Story

Mustafa Zaman, Hana Shams Ahmed and Elita Karim

With the elections around the corner many young voters are buckling up to exercise their franchise for the first time. But are they responsible enough to rally around the candidates who would make a difference in the political scenario that is deeply divided along the lines of the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)? As new voters, they have the ability to make their voices heard by bringing their choices at the forefront. But, young as they are, how motivated are they to rescue the nation from the continuous tug of war between the two major political parties? To find out whether they really have enough enthusiasm and steam to try and make a difference at the ballot, there is no alternative but to stand vi-a-vis the new voters.

Ifthekhar Chowdhury, a student of BBA at the Northern University, Dhaka, who has become a voter for the first time, says he has lost all faith in the regular politicians. However, he feels that every eligible person should become a voter. “It is very important that one should exercise one's franchise,” says Ifthekhar emphatically. He is not the one to rally around the regular politicians when it comes to choosing a candidate. His contention is clear, “voting is a great responsibility. It is important to know what party the candidate belongs to, but it is even more important to know whether the candidate is an honest and worthy person,” says Ifthekhar.

Ifthekhar represents many university students who feel that the past has proved that both the AL and the BNP have failed to nominate candidates who can be considered fit for the role of the law makers. “If the voters are really educated they would vote for the right person even if that person is an independent candidate,” says Ifthekhar.

Kakon, a 24-year-old first time voter from the English department of Jahangirnagar University says that it has a lot to do with his family's inclination towards a particular party. “It's almost like asking 'what religion do you follow'. We don't follow our religion because we have a logic behind it, we follow it because we grew up in the family that follows that religion.”

For some, weighing possible options and taking the decision are not difficult to make. 22-year-old Fahmida, studying law at Dhaka University, will be voting for Awami League in the upcoming elections. "Not only am I excited to vote," smiles Fahmida. "My family is very happy as well. It's practically a tradition in my family to vote for the Awami League and there is no question of deciding otherwise."

Many young people are excited about being able to exercise their constitutional right for the first time

22-year-old Nasrath Islam, a final year BBA student, is not only all excited about voting for the Bangladesh National Party next year, he is also campaigning for this party in his own small ways amongst his friends and classmates. His father has been a long time supporter of the party and has passed down this devotion to his children as well. When asked to comment on certain rumours regarding his illegal voting for BNP as a 17-year-old minor in the last elections, Nasrath does not make any, though he does not deny the fact either.

23-year-old Sadia, a fifth semester BBA student from JU, who has no such inclination, expresses her scepticism on all the political parties. “This election is going to be no different from any other election,” she says, “Whoever goes to power claims it to be 'a legal election' and the party that doesn't shows what a sore loser they are by saying that the whole process was just a charade.”

Although a student of Political Science at Jagannath University, 23-year-old Kabir says that he dislikes the politics of this country and is extremely confused about whom to vote for. “If I come from 1971 till now I think Ershad is the only person who has done the little bit of development work for the country,” he muses, “these days just about anyone can become a leader, at least it was not so during his reign. When one party comes, they just stop all the good projects that the other party had started.”

A young cigarette seller; for him, the candidate who promises to keep prices of essentials down, may get his vote.

Reefat, 21 agrees on this point and adds that five years is not a sufficiently long enough tenure to prove their worth. “Towards the end [of their tenure] we always say that so-and-so party has disappointed us. But by that time people have already forgotten what the other party had done in their reign.” He is also of the opinion that most of what happens in this country is controlled from outside. Reefat, who is incidentally also a member of Jatiyatabadi Chatra Dal (JCD), the student wing of the BNP, says that instead of the politicians he is more disappointed with the people of the country. “The politicians don't think about the country only because the people don't think about their country. What happens to the poor garment workers does not affect us in the least bit. If it did affect us, we would speak out against it. Now if anyone were to speak out he would first look behind to see if he had any supporters.”

Kakon, also a JCD member, said speaking in favour of his party, “We only look at the increase in prices, but we don't realise that along with the price hike, our buying capacity has also increased. Nowadays there are quite a few luxury cars plying through the streets of Dhaka, which were not there before. So obviously, people's buying power has gone up.”

23-year-old Mahbubul Karim, who lives in the halls of residence at Jahangirnagar University, disagrees completely and says that the price hike was the most disappointing aspect of the present government. Only a section of the people's incomes have increased. The rich have become richer and the poor have become poorer. It has become very difficult for us to buy the essential food.”

19-year-old Shohag from the Economics department agrees but also says that the government could do little about the increase in oil price as it was raised in the whole of the world market.

Shohag's classmate Ishtiaque believes that all the governments have let down the education sector of the country. “There should be an established education system for all the universities in the country. We can learn this from the universities abroad”, he says, “It's ridiculous that sometimes we need eight years to complete an honours course.”

20-year-old Salma from the Political Science Department of Eden College further adds, “Teachers (from the public universities) these days do not maintain the class schedule. We go to class at nine in the morning for a one-hour class, but the teachers come at 9:30 or even later by which time the class is almost over, and we can't finish our syllabus on time. Everything gets delayed and by the time we give the BCS exams we are much older than we should be. The public university teachers give priority to taking class in the private universities. They are busy making money there and are ignoring us completely.”

His life may not change much but his vote may bring major political changes.

The main reason for this-- Shohag says-- is that none of the student unions, whose main task is to make the voices of students heard, are in operation. “Dhaka University had DUCSU (Dhaka University Central Students Union) and Jahangirnagar had JACSU and they used to do a good job of highlighting students’ problems to the teachers but the teachers under the wing of the political parties have systematically uprooted these pressure groups to cover up their tracks. I really hope that the new government will maintain the universities' administration and aid the public university students.”

Terrorism is a controversial topic among the students. Although some say that this government has tackled terrorism very well most are under the impression that the whole ‘Bangla bhai’ incident was just staged to fool the common people of the country.

A pathy towards the whole electoral system is not unusual among even university students. 21-year-old Shanta is a student of Economics at a Private University and is least bothered with the elections on hand. "I am not even sure if I am registered or not," she explains. "And frankly speaking, I am not concerned about it either." According to 22-year-old Raihan studying in the same university, he does not feel the excitement over getting a chance to vote for the very first time in the next elections, since it would not make much of a difference in the official decisions to be taken. "There is a huge probability that even though I get registered and made eligible to vote in the upcoming elections," Raihan explains, "Someone else will go and vote instead of me. This is a very common practice in the country and happens to be one of the biggest reasons as to why many do not bother to vote."

The surge of pre-election violence and rampant allegations of vote-rigging have only added to the cynicism. "Starting with frequent hartals and the violence on the streets which occur before every election to a fresh surge of yet another round of clashes and protests after the elections," adds 24-year-old Jaya, a final year student from Dhaka University. "The contesting parties portray their ideas of revenge on each other, by lashing out on innocent citizens and terrorising the country for days together. In this case, how can one expect new voters to take a decision and vote for the 'right' party to come up and run the country?"

It is the democratic right of every citizen to vote for a ruling party, which is bound to provide security and education, eliminate poverty, develop the working class and build the economy of the country. "In that case, I can use this right and not vote in the upcoming elections," says 24-year-old Asheque. "There is no point in practicing democracy every five years and then forgetting about it afterwards. Every party comes up with similar promises, slogans and ideas before the elections but forget about them afterwards. There is no point in being all excited about voting and then regretting the decision later on."

Shohag, Salma and Ishtiaque are disappointed that none of the governments are paying attention to education in the public sector.

Unlike those who are privileged enough to pursue higher education, many new voters from the lower strata of the society are ready to vote for the candidate who belongs to their favourite political party.

Mohammad Arif, who recently joined as a quality inspector at a garment factory after completing his SSC, feels that it is the AL who ran the country with ease and confidence, and it is his duty to vote for their candidate. At age eighteen, Arif has landed the job that pays him well, and is proud to announce that he has become a voter in his patriarchal home at Doulatpur thana, Kushtia. Faced with the question what he would do if his favourite party nominates a corrupt person in the constituency where he is a voter, Arif says that he might consider voting an independent candidate.

If Arif is in favour of at least keeping open, the option for rallying around a better candidate, there are some who simply have no willingness to give it a second thought. Nurul Islam, a 25 year old, who is a voter at Bhola thana, Bhola, has never gone to school and is a staunch supporter of the BNP. He has made up his mind long before he became a voter. “I would certainly vote for a BNP candidate,” he says in an offhand manner. The rationale behind his decision is clear; it can be found in his contention that “it is the BNP who works for the betterment of the country.” Islam dismisses any possibility of voting into power a new candidate. “I've no plan to vote for a new face,” he says.

Sentu Miah, a 20-year-old who works at a dispensary in Gabtoly, Dhaka, and is a voter in his home village in Raypura thana, Narsingdi, feels that it is his duty to follow the footsteps of his forefathers. “Each and everyone in our family is an AL loyalist. I too want to vote for their candidate,” says Sentu couldn't continue his studies after class 7 because of economic hardship.

Sentu has his own set of arguments. “BNP could not control the prices of essentials. And it is because of the high cost of living that I had to leave home and look for a job in Dhaka,” says Sentu.

Taslima Khatun, a 21-year-old garment technician, living in Kalyanpur, Dhaka, is temperamentally opposed to buttressing her act of voting with political arguments. She feels that it is impossible for a voter to avoid being attracted to the party that everyone else is voting for. And on top of that she thinks that voting is a family matter. “If my parents and relatives are inclined to vote for a certain party, how can I alone take a decision on my own,” Taslima argues. She is in favour of the candidate that has already received the nod of her family.

A young housewife in Taslima's neighbourhood, on the other hand, simply feels that the exercise of franchise is “a very individual matter.” “I completely disagree with the line of thought that one should go with the drift. I'm equally disinclined to follow the footsteps of my parents,” says Jannatul Ferdous, who is eighteen. She is assertive about her own personal choice. “I'd vote for the person who I think would be able to contribute to the betterment of the country,” adds Jannatul who discontinued her study at school where she studied till class five to get married.

Although many young people like Delawar want to vote, they may not make it to the final voter list.

Jannatul is worried over the fact that it is not easy to choose a candidate who would really serve the people. She is also worried over the fact that since the new voter list will be trashed whether her name, will apparently figure in the updated list of the Election Commission or not. She sees no sign of that.

For the enthusiastic new voters, getting enlisted is one huge leap. Even a graduation degree examinee like Alamgir Hossain, had to coax the assistant register officer to make his name enlisted during the drive of making the new voters' roll. “The school mistress who was in charge of making the list in my ward in Chandpur kept saying that a student is not eligible to become a voter. I kept visiting her to make her understand that it was the age that was the sole factor in becoming a voter,” recalls Alamgir. Although Alamgir was told by the school teacher who was the assistant register officer in his area that his name has been included in the roll, he was not given any form to fill out. As he has reached the age of franchise, he is ready to assert his role as a voter.

It is not only Alamgir who is unsure of their status as a voter. There are plenty more who have not made it to the last voters' roll. Among those who did make it to the list, many are unsure of whether they may or may not figure in the updated roll. However, one thing is clear that many of the 18 plus generation are eager to participate in the coming elections. Though, not everyone is showing the discretion with which one might decide to use the right to vote to choose the right candidate.

Alauddin's Dilemma

Nineteen-year-old Alauddin, who sells flowers at Shahbagh Crossing, has always a shy smile on his face. The boy, barely passed his teens, grew up in the streets of the city. His father left the family when Alauddin was a toddler, when they used to stay in the BNP-Bosti in Agargaon. Life at that time, Alauddin vaguely recalls, was hard: His rickshaw-puller father's meagre income could not feed a family of three, and the prospect of the arrival of another child into the household scared him. When it turned out to be a girl child, Alauddin's father left and would never be seen again.

Children in the biggest shanty in town learn fast to cope with the challenge that life throws at them. Alauddin soon became a carrier of hashish; he would carry bundles of them to different peddlers in the locality. Under the shadows of the tall buildings that adorn the city's forlorn landscape, where the rich sit and shed a few tears on the plights of the country, numerous Alauddins, lost and abandoned as they are, grew up to be a peddler or a petty thug.

In different rallies or political gatherings they are hired, Taka 30 per head; in the photographs that the newspapers publish of these "mass rallies", Khaleda Zia or Sheikh Hasina speaking to the toiling masses, standing tall and erect as a beacon of hope, Alauddins remain a cluster of semi-recognisable human faces.

Alauddin attended his first public rally at 10. He was fascinated to see Khaleda, donned in her characteristic white chiffon chador, ascend the stairs to walk down the dais. A month later Hasina's turn came to mesmerise Alauddin; the confusion that both the leaders have infested him with in his late childhood has grown on him. Now a voter, he is not quite sure whom to vote for; his options, more or less, are laden with different "mass rallies" he has been hired for as a child.

"I am not sure, it may be the BNP or Awami League. I do not know," Alauddin says.

Most of the first-time voters living in the margin of the society are confused and undecided. With the Election Commission playing hocus-pocus, no one knows for sure of their number; but these youths, who were born after the restoration of democracy, are going to play a decisive role in the next general elections. These voters have never tasted the bitter fruit of military dictatorship and with the advent of satellite television they are more exposed to the world than their ancestors. They must be furious at the long-running deprivation that the society is seething with, but if they will pour this anger and fury onto the ballot, is anyone's guess.

Alauddin thinks that both the major parties are guilty of apathy and incompetence, but he still does not know whom else to trust on that fateful elections day. So, every day, Alauddin stands at the edge of the crossing in the city's busy thoroughfare, cajoling prospective buyers into buying a handful of roses that he has to offer. Alauddin's story refuses to end just there. Whom first-time voters like him are going to vote will decide both the major political parties' future. If Alauddins make a conscious decision and vote as a group, the tide will turn on both Khaleda and Hasina: If they do not, the country will have to make do with any one of them again. The latter is a sad prospect indeed.

-Ahmede Hussain




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