flickr / hewy
flickr / hewy

Dictated democracy?

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

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.

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