Fledgling Democracy

Bhutan's first democratic election has produced a notably young band of lawmakers for its upper house, the National Council. The body, elected in the historic poll of 31 December 2007, is made up mostly of Bhutanis in their 20s and 30s, and contains a number of fresh graduates, a few retired and working bureaucrats who resigned to contest elections, and others with military-family backgrounds. Indeed, the oldest newly elected official is only in his mid-50s. The main reason for this result was the Thimphu government's requirement that candidates have college degrees – a necessity that rules out much of the country's populace. As could perhaps be expected in a first-time democracy, these faces may be fresh, but each now appears to lack political experience. Indeed, many would do well with some rapid inculcation of democratic culture and norms.

As Bhutan's first democratic institution, the new National Council boasts a relatively skewed representation of the country's major communities. Of the 15 elected members, six are from the Ngalop community, the ruling elite; six are from the Sarchop community, of the east; two are from the Lhotshampa community, the Nepali-speakers of the south who make up 30 percent of the country's population; and one is from the Kheng community, hailing from the centre of the country. Among them, just three are women.

The end result notwithstanding, the early reports on 31 December showed that the road to democracy would not be without bumps. On the whole, voter turnout was lower than had been forecast, despite the royal government's public urgings, and the two rounds of mock elections in April and May 2007. The attendance on polling day appeared even less than the fairly dismal 55 percent claimed by the Chief Election Commissioner, Dasho Kunzang Wangdi.

In Trashigang, Bhutan's easternmost district and the stronghold of the Sarchops, 47 percent of the 18,109 registered voters turned out to vote. In Wangdue Phodrang, in the central part of the country, there was a 61 percent turnout.

These figures, however, do not necessarily reflect actual turnout, as problems also persisted at the polling booths themselves. According to eyewitnesses, many voters encountered 'unsupportive behaviour' from election officials while attempting to vote, and ultimately went home without having cast a ballot. In Trashigang District alone, hundreds of people were forced to walk again and again between two polling stations located two hours apart, trying to find their names on voter lists.

In Zhemgang, Trashigang and Pemagatshel districts, large numbers of voters never received the necessary voter-identity cards, which only months earlier had been made mandatory. Still others arrived assuming that they would be allowed to vote with only their standard identity cards, a confusion that was evidently fuelled by the fact that such cards had been acceptable months earlier, during the mock polls. Already by lunchtime on 31 December, the number of voters had shrunk, and polling booths in many districts were going empty. Those who were still around seemed to lack much enthusiasm for the elections: while leaving the polling booths, observers reported that there tended to be little talk about who the voters had selected, and very little comparing of notes. Some voters appeared grumpy that polling officials had asked them to spit out their doma, or paan.

Procedural lapses
Despite claims to the contrary, Bhutan's first polls were not an accomplishment that was built on lengthy preparation. Not that there had been no time. The country's democratic transition began a decade ago, when then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuk replaced the longstanding cabinet with a new one. At that time, in 1997, such actions, including a rethinking of the king's autocratic rule, had begun to seem increasingly necessary. Dissatisfaction among the Sarchops of the eastern districts was high and climbing, and even some high-level officials within the royal government had begun stepping out of line. Then there was the decision on the part of the general-secretary of the Bhutan Chamber of Commerce to extend support to the demonstrations in the east. In an attempt to win sympathy, King Jigme subsequently brought into his fold a small number of influential eastern Bhutanis. Thereafter, under pressure from the easterners, a plan for democratic transition was put in place. It would also have to be said that the demands for democracy and representative politics from the Lhotshampa of the south was met with the boot. It was this suppression that ultimately led to the flight of a hundred thousand refugees, who today live in UNHCR-overseen camps in southeast Nepal.

On the evidence of the recent elections, Bhutan's transition to democracy still has some hurdles to cross. According to the country's draft constitution, released in March 2005, the National Council polls were not to have been politicised. Rather, it is not until the elections to the lower house, the National Assembly, currently slated for 24 March 2008, when the country's few nascent political parties will technically be able to openly take part. But the politicisation of the National Council elections is now being seen by some as reflective of insincerity on the part of party leaders and the monarch. In Trashigang and Zhemgang, for instance, party workers openly lobbied for their desired candidates, and met with no disciplinary action from the Election Commission. This was in direct contradiction with the Commission's sternness in the southern districts, such as Chhukha and Sarpang. In these areas, Lhotshampa candidates who failed to receive tickets from political parties were barred from contesting in National Council elections, and tshokpas (local-government village representatives) of Lhotshampa origin were terminated from their positions for attending party meetings.

This supposed non-politicisation of the National Council election process proved a bugbear until the end. Despite the time devoted to preparations, voter education, which would seem to have been considered a priority in the context of Bhutan's embryonic democratic process, left much to be desired. Leaving aside understanding the crucial difference between the upper and lower houses, until just before polling began the electorate was even confused about whether it was voting for a party or a candidate.

The actual process of voting seemed just as fraught. Despite the use of sophisticated electronic voting machines, many voters lamented either not being able to see the photos of the candidates on the ballot, or were still unsure as to which button corresponded with which candidate. Some expressed outright uncertainty over whom they had voted for. Others reported having simply tried correlate their favourite candidate with the colour of the gho (the national dress for Bhutani men) being worn by the figures in the ballot photos.

The absence of observers throughout the country on polling day was another notable lapse on the part of the Thimphu government. All in all, there were only nine international observers – three from the Indian Election Commission, one from Australia and five from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) office in Thimphu. Some raised questions about the Indian Election Commission sending observers, as it could have been seen as having been an organiser of the polls. The other observers, meanwhile, seemed unable or unwilling to file much of a report on the proceedings, or they seemed impressed enough that the process was simply going forward in the first place. The UNDP chief in Thimphu, Nicholas Rosellini, visited a few booths around the capital city, to conclude that the polling was both smooth and fair. Election Commissioner Kunzang Wangdi trumpeted similar claims.

Council to Assembly
In the end, perhaps they were correct. The lapses detailed above are only to be expected in the first-ever exercise in conducting a countrywide poll. Though there is much work to be done in the interim between the 31 December National Council elections and the upcoming 24 March National Assembly elections, Bhutanis have reason to be optimistic that the process of a peaceful transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy has gotten underway.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that, in the month since the polls, there has not been a single formal complaint filed at the Election Commission against the results. In fact, most of the losing candidates themselves have expressed satisfaction with the outcome. The attempt to democratise an absolute monarchy itself is appreciable – not least with regards to the erstwhile absolute monarch himself. In time, Bhutan's case may well set a new example for absolute rulers regarding the option of progressive transformation.

That said, the movement towards the National Assembly will not be nearly as easy for the country as was the National Council elections. Two months before the lower-house polls, there are still just two legally registered political entities, the People's Democracy Party and the Druk Phuensum Tshokpa. Both of these entities have stated that their ideologies are based on Bhutan's 'Gross National Happiness' agenda, while the former has also emphasised the environment, and the latter the preservation of 'culture'. But the inevitable complaints and counter-complaints between these two parties could well mar the fairness of the next democratic exercise, not least by souring the experience for the people themselves. Despite the calm surrounding the National Council elections, the Election Commission has already received more than five dozen complaints from both sides in the lead-up to the 24 March polls.

Even outside of the public political arena, things have been heating up. On 20 January, the kingdom was rocked by a series of bomb blasts in four places across the country, including Thimphu. With the people of Bhutan now fearing that inadequate arrangements have been made for public safety, observers have warned that the attacks could further impact on voter interest and turnout. Given the lower-than-expected participation the last time around, the government could face even higher hurdles in bringing the public to the polling stations in late March – particularly if the situation on the ground gets increasingly tense as campaigning goes on.

Meanwhile, preparations for the National Assembly polls remain far behind. To learn from the experience of the National Council elections, there is a pressing need for the Thimphu government to smoothen the process of voter education, and to increase the number of polling booths across the country. This would ensure that more people are both willing and able to take part in the election, and would ease the burden on villagers in remote places. With an electorate that is around 400,000-strong, this should be relatively easy to accomplish within the next two months. Additionally, the Election Commission critically needs more personnel, both permanent and volunteer, to educate the electorate about the importance of adult franchise in a new democracy.

In addition, the voter-education campaign must not focus solely on the immediate elections, but increase its scope. It will need to educate the people about the role of voters specifically in a parliamentary democracy, as Bhutan aims to become one. As things currently stand, for instance, draft constitutional provisions in Bhutan require an interim government, led by a chief justice, to come to power 90 days before polls are held, vested with the sole responsibility of overseeing the electoral process. This requirement has yet to be highlighted, prompting speculation that the eventual power centre might not adhere to the country's constitutional provisions, even after promulgation.

In the Bhutani context, one particular factor to watch out for in the upcoming months will be nepotism. Unfortunately, this inevitably became the basis for acquiring votes during the National Council polls, with many voters noting that the predominant factor in their choice for candidate had been their family's proximity to the contender. More than anything else, this is perhaps one of the most crucial reasons that Bhutan's new slate of Council members is relatively short on pertinent experience and expertise.

Ultimately, as has been proven time and again in Southasia and around the world, simply holding polls is far from enough to declare a democracy. In particular, a democratic transition powered in part by outside forces – whether India, the US or the World Bank – would undoubtedly face complex contradictions if it does not match local aspiration and public sentiment. More troubling, in bypassing the massive number of Lhotshampas evicted during the early 1990s, while also restricting a similar number still within Bhutan from casting votes, the Thimphu authorities have injected an unneeded tension into the country's fledgling democratic process, just as it is taking its first steps.

~ I P Adhikari is chief editor of the Bhutan News Service, based in Kathmandu.

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