Engaging the youth in electoral process

Why we need it now more than ever
Alleged Chhatra League activists beat up a youth in front of the DU central mosque in 2013. A violent brand of student politics has reduced any and all interest of students and young professionals from taking an active role in electoral processes. PHOTO: STAR

As Bangladesh gears up for what may very well turn out to be the most crucial political exercise in its history, questions have arisen about the level of youth participation in electoral politics. The Election Commission has recently concluded a series of successful talks with leading political parties, civil society members and external public policy stakeholders. Whilst the active engagement of the Election Commission with the two leading political parties has indeed created a zone for indirect dialogue between the Awami League and the BNP, the KM Nurul Huda-led Commission has so far refrained from appropriately marketing the upcoming parliamentary elections to the growing youth population of the country. 

One hopes that in a country which has a median age of 26.9 years, the highest constitutional authority in regard to the electoral process takes measures to ensure a wider interest, and subsequently a wider participation rate amongst young people, so as to encourage them to perform their civic responsibility during the upcoming election. 

Statistics do not show a complete picture of key events or issues. However, they are indicative of trends in the socio-political atmosphere of the country. The last full-fledged active engagement of the civilian population in electoral politics was during the 2008 Parliamentary Elections, which brought the incumbent Awami League to power. Bangladesh witnessed a high turnout of 87.16 percent in the 2008 elections. 

Bangladesh defines a young adult as a person in the age group of 18–35 as per the National Youth Policy of 2003, which leads to the empirical notion that over 50 percent of citizens are representative of young people in the country. Of those registered as voters in 2008, a high proportion did indeed partake in the constitutional process. However, the problem is seemingly broader. The 2008 Parliamentary Elections saw the Awami League promote a brand of progressive electoral promises centred around issues of enhancing communications technology, investing in education and broadening the developmental capacity of the country. This, whilst attracting a large proportion of young people to the polls, did not necessarily lead to the optimal registration of the younger population as voters, especially in the 18–25 age group. 

Keeping aside the politics of the 2014 Parliamentary Elections, the state was unable to attract higher voter registration or participation for the public, let alone the younger population. Whilst the BNP and the Awami League fought over a constitutional mechanism for the polls, they seemed to have forgotten the voters amidst their ideological clashes. As such, in 2015, the Election Commission reported their increasing concerns pertaining to the participation of the youth in electoral processes. For one, the brand of politics practised by our leading parties has kept student politics in the vicinity of the respective organisations, whilst reducing any and all interest of students and young professionals from taking an active role during elections. This scenario still stands today. 

Barring the disenfranchisement of the youth from politics due to a lack of interest, the question remains in regard to what the government, the opposition or the Election Commission has done to increase election-related youth awareness. Have they taken their opinions whilst formulating policies? Have youth-level platforms or organisations been consulted outside the purview of the Chhatra League and the Chatra Dal? If national stakeholders are unable to engage the younger crowd in discussions about what the future of this country should be, starting from its constitutional practices to political culture, then to expect the youth to seek an active interest in domestic politics is unrealistic. It is more likely for the younger population in Bangladesh to know about the policies and pledges of candidates in an American election, then to know who their respective members of parliament are. This needs to be addressed.

Furthermore, there are broader questions relating to the youth in the upcoming elections. An estimated 25 percent of the 15–29 age group in Bangladesh are neither in education nor employed in any formal economic activity. Of this age group, an estimated 11 percent of citizens remain unemployed. If anything, the upcoming election is more crucial for the younger population than it is for the Awami League or the BNP. Their futures remain at stake. And in order for them to have a say in this process, and select credible candidates to represent them in parliament, this age group needs to be allowed the opportunity to express their opinions to the highest authorities of the land. As such, whilst it is impractical to expect our leading parties to collaborate or introduce bipartisan youth-level discussions in regard to developing their respective manifestos, it is advisable for the Election Commission to reach out to this demographic as they have done with political parties and other stakeholders. The onus remains on the KM Nurul Huda-led Commission to take the initiative of enhancing youth participation in the upcoming polls with the assistance of the political actors. 

Fundamentally, Bangladesh remains at a crossroads with its own legacy. If the future of this country is to be entrusted into the hands of the younger generation, then one cannot simply restrict that to the current crop of young politicians. All nation states which have successfully developed progressive and inclusive democracies, have large-scale state-level youth forums, platforms and bipartisan groups which enhance the interest of the youth population in politics. Until and unless we realise this and initiate a process of achieving such, Bangladeshi politics will be limited to evaluating the rivalry between the two leading parties or determining whether the chief justice overstepped his legal reach, completely ignoring what the public, and more crucially, what the youth, think about these issues. 

Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a student of economics and international relations at the University of Toronto. Email: [email protected]