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Bhutan : Dictated democracy ?

With elections looming, Bhutan – one of the youngest democracies in the world – is struggling to stabilise its government and political system.

In December 2006, King Jigme Singye announced he would abdicate the throne, making way for the young crown prince, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk. This move heralded a new era for Bhutan – the establishment of substantive democracy – under the guidance of its new and popular monarch.

Shortly after his enthronement, King Khesar, often referred to as K5 (he is the fifth King of Bhutan) by his citizens, made clear his desire to see great changes in the country’s political system. Political parties, once regarded as a wholesale threat to peace and stability, came into existence. Bhutan’s first general election, held in 2008, paved the way for the Bhutanese people to experience the world’s most popular form of government. Of the two parties in the field, Druk Phunsum Tshogpa (DPT) won 45 of 47 seats in the lower house, making the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) the world’s smallest opposition. Bhutan’s upper house, meanwhile, is apolitical. Additionally, the constitution promulgated in July 2008 formally changed the absolute monarchy in Bhutan to a constitutional one.

While overall voter turnout was much higher than expected, the election failed to address the prevailing grievances of the people, and was not as democratic as expected. The US-based Hindu American Foundation, which monitors the human rights of Hindus across the globe, reported that around 80,000 eligible people were denied the right to vote.

There were many complaints about the poll results in 2008 and about local government elections held thereafter. The two elected members of the PDP had initially tendered their resignations after allegations of forgery. Election monitoring was poor in 2008, with only a few individuals handpicked by Thimpu acting as observers. Monitoring mechanisms were almost completely absent during local government elections.

There are no guarantees that these conditions will improve during elections predicted to be held in April and June 2013. Neither the government nor the Election Commission has disclosed whether or not international observers will be invited for monitoring this time. The credibility of the election will depend on the implementation of internal monitoring mechanisms, which could and should be assisted by international observers invited to assist with monitoring and provide valuable feedback.

Many Bhutanese, having lived for so long in a closed society, are not convinced of the importance of politics. Few are interested in joining a political party, making the pool from which parties can draw candidates from even smaller. Recent graduates, who represent the largest demographic group of eligible candidates, are discouraged by the stringent rules of Bhutan’s two-party system, as well as the difficulties they may face in re-entering the job market if unsuccessful in politics.

With these and other restrictions in place, even the incumbent opposition is finding it hard to field candidates for the next election. After winning only two out of 47 seats in the National Assembly in the 2008 election, most of the PDP’s candidates left the party to pursue personal businesses, or have joined other parties or interest groups. As of October, the party had 39 candidates ready for the next election, only 15 of whom are being carried over from the previous list. The DPT have confirmed the change of one candidate, while the futures of Speaker Jigmi Tshultim and Home Minister Minjur Dorji have become uncertain after the Anti-Corruption Commission filed criminal cases against them in Mongar District Court in November.

With two parties represented, the parliament remains stable, but it falls far short of representing the diverse range of political opinions held in Bhutan. Unless these disparate voices are given a platform from which to be heard – both during and after the electoral campaigns – a cohesive, vibrant and inclusive government remains a distant dream. This is dictated democracy.

Rules of the game

Of the three applications submitted by fledgling parties eager to take part in the 2008 elections, the Election Commission of Bhutan accepted only two. Today, new parties have emerged with high hopes for inclusion, even though they lack the requisite number of candidates. Increasingly, parties and political operatives are questioning the Election Commission’s stipulation that parties must have 47 candidates – one for each constituency – in order to run in the primary round. However the commission has provided the option for candidates from parties unsuccessful in the primaries to join one of the two parties vying for majority in the National Assembly in the final round.

Clearly, the fate of any new party remains at the mercy of the Election Commission. But the presence of more parties in the field will make little difference in the way the Bhutanese parliament and government work, because the constitution dictates that only two parties are permitted to sit in parliament. The stringent requirements for participating in primary elections, combined with this exclusionary endgame, serve to strongly discourage new political parties from entering the formal political process.

The legal prescription that candidates must have a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent qualifications) is particularly disheartening for an older generation of Bhutanese who, by and large, lacked access to higher education. Young people, while more qualified, are often reluctant to embark on political careers, in large part because of the restrictions described above.

Charges of acting against the state or the royal family, or evidence of support for or participation in the pro-democratic movements in 1990 and 1997-8, are all impediments for anyone wishing to pursue a career in politics. Many political leaders arrested for demanding political change in those years remain in jail to this day. Relatives of these leaders, and also refugees currently in Nepal or resettled in Western countries, have not yet received security clearance from the government, preventing them from participating either as voters or candidates. There are few hopes in Thimphu or beyond that these restrictions will either be eased or lifted in time for next year’s elections, raising serious concerns over whether Bhutan has truly embraced democracy.

Despite the difficulties the Election Commission has created for new political parties, four new political groups had originally expressed an interest in participating in next year’s election. At the time of writing, the State-owned Bhutan Broadcasting Service reported that a new party – Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), literally translated as the Druk Democratic Socialist Party – had found 33 eligible candidates to run in the election. Meanwhile, Kuensel, the government-run newspaper, said the Bhutan Kuen-nyam Party (BKP) has a total of 29 candidates, although only a few of these have been publicly named so far. Another party, the Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT), has 45 confirmed candidates. A fourth party calling itself the Druk Mitser Tshogpa failed to gather enough candidates, and so announced that it would transform itself into a ‘political youth group’. The DNT, BKP and DCT have all applied for registration with the Election Commission.

The frequency of interaction between parties and the people will, to some extent, influence voters in their choices in 2013. While most political discourse concentrates on the capital city, it remains to be seen how the new political groups will remain close to voters and interact with them. After the 2008 elections, parties have drawn criticism for failing to reach and interact with voters.

One reason for this was the debilitating financial situation of the existing parties. Sources of income for political parties are almost non-existent. The government provides funding for election campaigns only ; at all other times, parties have to survive on membership fees and individual volunteer donations of up to BTN 500,000 (approximately USD 9100). International financial support is banned. Both parties in the current parliament incurred a debt of over BTN 20 million (approximately USD 364,500) each in the previous elections, and only completed their repayments very recently. The Election Commission had warned that parties with debt would be disqualified from contesting the 2013 election.

In October, the national gathering of central committee members and district coordinators of the DPT proposed a monthly salary of BTN 5000 (USD 91) for district co-ordinators and BTN 4000 for constituency co-ordinators, with co-ordinators at lower levels being paid on an ever-decreasing sliding scale thereafter. Calculating for 20 districts, 47 constituencies, 206 gewogs (groups of villages) and 1044 villages, the DPT alone would require around BTN 3 million (about USD 54,500) every month. Considering its present levels of income and membership, and taking into account the legal provisions banning foreign donations, the DPT will be unable to meet these expenses in the near future.

Majorities, minorities and those yet to be counted

The Bhutanese electorate is something of a mixed bag. The politically-conscious youth vote is likely to be the deciding factor in the next election. Young people, perhaps psychologically buoyed by the king’s own age (Khesar is currently 32), have begun to desire younger elected leadership too. According to Home Ministry documents, in 2013 Bhutan will have 112,600 young voters – defined as those between the ages of 18 and 25 – of whom 70,000 will be exercising their voting rights for the first time. The youth vote will make up 30% of the electorate, but that does not guarantee that the issues pertinent to this bloc will be addressed. The Bhutanese government’s bigwigs, who earned their fortunes working under the direct rule of the king, still dominate national politics.

Other factors affecting will also affect the result : the contentious issue the ethnic cleansing carried out in the southern districts in the 1990s, the political suppression of the eastern districts in 1997-98, and the discontent felt by the fatherless and stateless young population in the central districts. The call for greater reforms in 1990, and the subsequent expulsion of those demanding change, has resulted in a growing number of Bhutanese taking refuge abroad in the US, Australia, Canada and Western Europe.

The first elected government expressed that Bhutan would take back ‘eligible’ citizens unwilling to be resettled abroad. The current government appears to believe that repatriating a small number of the displaced currently in from refugee camps in Nepal could help dilute the discontent in southern Bhutan. The opposition party objected to the government’s plans for repatriation, arguing that this might open the doors to ‘terrorists’. Aspiring new political groups have remained silent on the issue : demands for equality by the eastern Bhutanese and the issue of stateless children have never been priorities for Bhutanese political parties and authorities.

Indeed, parties and candidates have maintained self-censorship on a variety of issues. The two registered parties in 2008 made only piecemeal efforts to speak on the refugee problem, but even this was merely to win the votes of those affected. With over 75,000 refugees resettled internationally already, the issue may not be powerful enough to produce southern sympathy this time around. However, the 80,000 ‘ineligible voters’ in the south and east will be an attractive source of future votes. The politically sensitive issue of citizenship rights for fatherless children will likely receive less attention. In a patriarchal society such as Bhutan, issues like this will continue to be suppressed.

Today, the National Assembly has four female members, while the upper house has six, meaning women account for less than 14 percent of parliament. Unfortunately, debates surrounding female empowerment do not appeal to the electorate. However, NGOs are encouraging women to join politics through advocacy programmes. S B Ghalley – who intends to run for election with the DCT – says his party ensures equality for all members, without giving priority to women. Two of the new political groups made headlines earlier this year when they flirted with the possibility of nominating female party leaders. One has, in fact, now done so : the DCT is now led by Lily Wangchuk, a former UN employee. But the appointment of female party-leader will not change the overall climate for women in politics. Female participation will have little impact on national politics unless women’s roles in family life, society and the workplace also change.

In the eyes of NGOs and activists, women are the sole marginalised group in terms of political participation. These organisations have ignored the plight of ethnic minorities entirely, and this approach is further compounded by the absence of a governmental effort to identify, count and include these groups in the nation-building process. This apathy invites complications and difficulties in determining the futures of marginalised people. Without statistical data, it is impossible to assess Bhutan’s commitment to equal opportunities, as well as to test whether government and INGO initiatives have made a substantial difference to the lives of its marginalised communities.

The Royal road

The monarchy exercises considerable influence over every major political decision, and this can have significant effect on the outcome of any vote. The constitution provides for the monarchy to remain an active political voice in governance, and in the appointment of parliamentarians, security chiefs and constitutional office holders. The monarchy has also adopted a strategy to win the hearts of the general public, with King Khesar walking to villages in Bhutan’s remote districts in order to listen to the grievances of the people, help settle land ownership disputes and provide counsel in times of natural disaster, such as the 2009 earthquake in eastern Bhutan. He also reached the Haa and Wangdue Phodrang fire disasters faster than the local fire service.

Despite Bhutan’s move towards a democracy with a constitutional monarch, political actors are seeking a greater role for the monarchy. National Council members seek royal directives on whether they should resign to recontest seats, MPs seek royal advice on whether certain parties should get state funding, and local government leaders supplant the national government, preferring instead to receive the king’s blessings for their plans. In some cases where Bhutan’s constitution has been called into question, politicians have approached the king for his interpretation, bypassing the Supreme Court. Moreover, political parties know that they must speak with affection and respect towards the monarchy in order to secure public support.

Bhutanese democracy is rising above its myriad challenges. Changes are picking up gradually despite efforts by the ruling party and the palace to exert their control. Public criticism of government misdeeds and failures to deliver on commitments is starting to gain momentum. If the political climate does not change swiftly in the coming years, this dictated democracy will be slow to mature.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.