As opposition boycott tarnishes vote, young Bangladeshis seek new narrative

Signs of generational change as the country heads into another election on Sunday boycotted by the main opposition party.

Bangladesh Digital Dreams
Young people represent a large voting bloc in Bangladesh and want a change from politics as usual with its divisions, acrimony and violence during campaigns and elections [Mahmud Hossain Opu/AP]

At a technology centre in Bangladesh’s capital, young women huddle around a computer, discussing a coding issue. Many of them make the daily trip to Dhaka on the shiny new metro rail while scouring their smartphones for the latest on social media.

For decades, political battles in Bangladesh have been fought on the streets, often with violence, by parties led by two powerful women. But there are signs of a generational change as the country of 169 million heads into another general election on Sunday.

Acrimony has flared once again ahead of the voting, and the opposition, led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, has boycotted the elections.

But millions of young voters are seeking a different narrative.

A burgeoning technology industry, lively e-commerce and a growing public digital infrastructure are helping one of South Asia’s fastest growing economies capitalise on a tech-savvy workforce that is demanding change from politicians.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is trying to woo first-time voters with her government’s Digital Bangladesh project, promising a “smart Bangladesh” by 2041 and 15 million new jobs for young people by 2030.

In an address at a large election rally outside Dhaka on Saturday, Hasina asked young voters for their support, “so that the advancement of Bangladesh continues”.

Some are listening. Shahrima Tanjin Arni, 26, who teaches law at Dhaka University, called Hasina a bold leader with a vision for a digital future.

“She holds the values of the past, but at the same time, she has a progressive thinking in her progressive heart, which is not very common in Bangladeshi societies,” Arni said.

Bangladesh Digital Dreams
Arni credits Hasina with being a ‘bold leader’ with a vision for a digital future [Mahmud Hossain Opu/AP]

‘Don’t want any chaos’

The previous two general elections were marred by allegations of vote rigging and intimidation, which authorities denied.

Hasina is seeking a fourth consecutive term and has pledged free and fair elections. But her critics have accused her of undermining the process for inclusive elections and suppressing the opposition, which Hasina blamed for violence.

Younger voters have said they want a break from the highly polarised political culture and concerns over democratic rights.

“My desire is that … people of Bangladesh will freely exercise their voting right, their freedom of speech will be ensured and the justice system will work independently,” said Abdur Rahim Rony, a student at Dhaka University.

“I also wish that no political party or the government will interfere with the constitutional institutions.”

One-fourth of the country’s population is in the 15-29 age group, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. Almost one-third of the country’s 119.1 million registered voters are between 18 and 30.

An October survey conducted online by the Bangladesh Citizen’s Platform for SDGs, or sustainable development goals, found that 69 percent of people aged 18 to 35 in Bangladesh consider corruption and nepotism as the main obstacles to development as the country sheds its least-developed economic status and grows into a middle-income developing country.

“We don’t want any chaos on streets or violence. When I will finish my study, I wish to do a job or start my own business peacefully,” said 20-year-old Raul Tamjid Rahman, a first-time voter and computer science student at Brac University in Dhaka.

“It’s a call from our generation to our politicians and policymakers.”

Digital boom

The telecommunications boom in Bangladesh began in 1997 when Hasina issued free licenses to three operators to run the mobile phone sector. It was a key chance for global companies to invest in one of the world’s most densely populated countries.

“The expansion of digital economy is a miracle that is bringing changes to the economic landscape with young people at the helm,” said Abu Saeed Khan, a senior policy fellow at the Sri Lanka-based think tank LIRNEasia.

Bangladesh Digital Dreams
Achia Nila is the founder of a Women in Digital technology centre [Mahmud Hossain Opu/AP]

According to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, the country now has close to 127 million internet users with about 114 million mobile internet subscribers.

The government has spent millions of dollars to turn a network of 8,500 rural post offices into e-centres for local communities.

New startups include some funded by Silicon Valley investors, and mobile money transfers have become common. Most of Bangladesh’s 4 million garment workers, a majority of them women, use SMS-based money transfer apps to help their families in rural areas.

But inflation and dwindling foreign currency reserves still challenge Bangladesh’s economy. The country sought a $4.5bn loan from the International Monetary Fund in 2022 to safeguard its finances.

The government is optimistic, however, that the economy, which grew from $8.75bn in 1971 to $460bn in 2022, will soon be worth half a trillion dollars.

“Mobile voice and mobile video both have become the oxygen of [the] economy, as simple as that,” Khan said.

The expansion of digital infrastructure has come with concerns over a contentious 2018 Digital Security Act and its recent replacement, the Cyber Security Act. The government said they are needed to fight misinformation, hacking and attempts to undermine people’s rights.

Critics and rights activists said the previous law was misused by the government to suppress dissent and freedom of speech.

Critics said the new cybersecurity law will change little from the earlier legislation. In March, a journalist for a leading newspaper was arrested under the law on charges of spreading false news.

TIM Nurul Kabir, executive director of the Foreign Investors’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that despite challenges, Bangladesh’s digital development is attracting young people.

“This is the new generation who are coming ahead with innovations,” he said. “For a developed Bangladesh, these young people, these digital dreamers, are the backbone. Women are also increasingly joining that future journey.”

Tech entrepreneur Achia Nila is one of them.

“Technology is super important in my daily life. It fits into everything I do,” Nila said, adding that it helps to connect with clients and the international market.

Ahead of Sunday’s elections, Nila called on political parties not to fight and instead focus on working together to further develop Bangladesh.

Many young people feel frustrated with corruption and bureaucracy, she said, and warned that they may prefer to migrate to other countries because of better opportunities.

Source: AP