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Bhutan’s unique democracy: a first verdict

Karma Phuntsho
2 April 2008

The Kingdom of Bhutan, positioned in the high Himalayas between the two Asian giants of India and China, takes pride in doing things differently. Its foremost goal is "gross national happiness", and tourism is restricted to those who can afford a hefty package of some $200 per day. Almost 60% of the country is considered to be under forest cover, with 25% staunchly protected as nature reserve. Bhutan's landscape is bestrewn with traditional architecture and religious monuments and sparsely populated by just over half a million people who still walk proud in their unique traditional dress (gho for men, kira for women). The sale of tobacco is banned nationwide and internet and TV arrived only at the end of the 1990s. Even democracy has come to this country in the most unusual way.

Karma Phuntsho was born in central Bhutan.
He studied Buddhism in Cheri monastery in Bhutan, continued his studies in Tibetan monasteries in India, before teaching Buddhism and related subjects in both Tibetan and English. He earned a doctorate in Buddhist studies at Oxford University in 2003. He is currently a research associate in the department of social anthropology, Cambridge University
Bhutan, ruled by a king since 1907 and by a theocracy and civilian regency before that, had always remained independent, and largely immune to development until about fifty years ago when the first roads and schools were built and it began shyly to embrace modernisation. The process of "modernisation" brought to this "last Shangri-la" swift socio-economic advance and with it the onslaught of globalisation and its material trappings (see Lyonpo Jigme Thinley, "Globalisation: the view from Bhutan" [25 October 2001]). More recently, it is political transformation which has intrigued and occupied the Buddhist population of this hermetic country.

Towards the end of the last century, the much-loved fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck (who had ruled the country since 1972), started a process of gradual devolution of power to the people by handing executive power to a cabinet of ministers and ordering a new democratic constitution to be drafted. In 2006, he abdicated to make way for his eldest son Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck to be king and for parliamentary democracy to be constituted as Bhutan's political system.

A democratic process

Bhutan's democratic journey began from the palace. "It is a gift from the golden throne", say most Bhutanese. Notwithstanding the populace's initial reluctance for change, the fourth king insisted on establishing a system which involves the people and is sustainable. His critics, however, argue that this is a royal sham to silence political dissent and a shrewd way to secure the monarchy's future. The draft constitution which is to be endorsed later in 2008, they say, gives far too much significance to the king and preserves most royal privileges. The majority of Bhutanese, on the other hand, see the royal initiative to democratise as benevolent, timely and beneficial for both the country and its monarchy.

If Bhutan's democracy is unique in originating with the ruler and not as a result of the outcry of unhappy subjects, the laws which frame it make it even more so. In an unprecedented move, Bhutan's electoral authorities imposed on all candidates standing for parliament a minimum educational qualification of a university degree obtained from a credible institution through full- time study. For a country where secular education began only in the last half of the 20th century and where most of the community leaders are village elders with no formal education, such a requisite is both demanding and controversial. The vast majority of the population over the age of 40 did not even attend school, let alone college.

Many suspect this prerequisite to be a tactic to dislodge the former representatives who had a dominant voice in the erstwhile national assembly and enjoyed strong support in the rural communities which make up most of Bhutan. The government reasoned that parliamentarians, and especially ministers, should be sufficiently educated to be able to follow and conduct modern political and economic discourse and to interact with international counterparts. Thus a university education is seen as an essential criterion for good leadership.

Also by Karma Phuntsho in openDemocracy:
"Bhutanese reform, Nepalese criticism" (13 October 2006) For the community leaders who only have a traditional upbringing and training and have not attended secular colleges, this rule is seriously biased against the Bhutanese tradition. It places western educational values above Bhutanese ones and technical training above liberal education. "Even our enlightened monarch, who has led the country so successfully, does not have a university degree", remarked one elder, referring to the fourth king. Worse, this regulation is seen as an obstruction to the burgeoning democracy. This stringent rule disqualifies most community leaders from the race and there is an acute shortage of political aspirants.

Most candidates who competed in December 2007 for the twenty seats in the national council or the upper house were in their 30s, and some were just out of college. A couple of districts could not even produce two candidates, and had to settle for votes for and against single candidates. Competition for the national assembly or the lower house was stifled in the same way. Despite repeated calls to set up political parties, only two were successfully formed. A third party was forced to dissolve after it failed to find an able party president with a university degree. Now, temporary election laws such as the educational criterion will be officially endorsed by the new parliament, which consists only of people holding a university degree. Some traditional leaders are wary that true democracy may remain forever out of their reach. One former people's representative has even enrolled himself at a university.

Bhutan also startled its citizens with the pronouncement that religious persons are not entitled to vote. "Religion", the chief election commissioner explained, "must remain above politics". To cast a vote, one has to choose, and to choose, one has to discriminate. Buddhist monks must transcend worldly discrimination and partiality. In theory, this fits well a devoutly Buddhist country. In reality, however, a significant population of men and women are monks and nuns, and many of them are also village elders. In most villages, particularly in the eastern part of Bhutan, a large portion of men are lay priests combining both religious and worldly pursuits. Denying them suffrage has not only lessened people's participation in democracy but led to other issues.

Some monks are thinking of renouncing their religious status to claim their franchise; others, out of indignation, clandestinely work to influence lay voters. Without suffrage for the religious, there is a general feeling that no political parties will own their cause, and that this will eventually result in the neglect of the nation's priceless spiritual tradition. This regulation, like the educational qualification criterion and other such rules, awaits being debated and enacted by the new parliament.

A people's choice

Bhutan's process of democratisation, like political change elsewhere, was not without excitement, ferment and furore. Despite moderate reluctance at first, people took up the cause with unexpected gusto. This was not what most foreign media persisted in depicting: the picture of an idyllic Bhutan, medieval and innocent, prosperous and peaceful, and unwilling to creep out of its monarchical wonderland. Such an orientalist portrayal, sexed up with the Shangri-la myth, is as far from the truth as it is patronising.

Bhutanese were not spoon-fed with an unwanted democracy, let alone force-fed, as was often claimed. Rather, Bhutanese took an active part in the process with enthusiasm and vigour. Villagers walked for hours from isolated areas to listen to the political candidates, who traversed the country campaigning for support. Thousands volunteered to work for the party of their liking and contributed huge amounts towards party funds. Politics became the topic of almost every conversation and the atmosphere was rife with political fervour and fear, speculation and gossip, and even exchanges of vitriolic allegation and mudslinging in the months leading up to the election. Democracy was taken up with such passion and earnestness that in some places friends and family were divided along political lines while elsewhere enemies have united under one political party.

On 24 March, in an event described by its people as well as outsiders as a historic moment, Bhutan went to the polls to elect its first democratic government. Men and women walked long distances, some with babies on their back, and queued for hours to cast their secret ballot. It was for some their final answer to the royal call to build a sound democracy, but for most the moment to exercise their right to choose their leader. A total of 253,012 out of 318,465 eligible voters (79.4%) cast their vote, almost a third of that in the first two hours, in a contest between parties each led by people who have previously served as prime ministers under the monarchy.

Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), led by the eloquent intellectual and statesman Jigmi Thinley, stressed political integrity as the bedrock of a sound democracy and campaigned for democracy and justice. His opponent, Sangay Ngedup (the brother-in-law of the fourth king and uncle of the fifth king) led the People's Democratic Party (PDP) with the slogans "walk the talk" and "service with humility".

For most Bhutanese, the two parties were known as the "crane" and "horse" respectively, after their logos. With both parties bandying the royal vision of "gross national happiness" and promising to develop the nation with motorable roads and electricity as their priorities (since these are tangible benefits with which woo the predominantly rural electorate), there was little or no difference between the parties in political ideologies or policies. At the most, theirs was a difference in emphasis, with DPT stressing principle and PDP delivery. Hence the election was largely seen as a contest about the persona of the party presidents and the public appeal of the individual candidates. However, the outcome confounded expectations and sent a stunning message across the country.

Also on Bhutan in openDemocracy:

Lyonpo Jigme Thinley, "Globalisation: the view from Bhutan" (25 October 2001)

Charlie Devereux, "Bhutan's outsiders in limbo" (20 April 2006)

Dharma Adhikari, "Bhutan's democratic puzzle"
(20 June 2006)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "China and Bhutan: crushing dissent"
(4 July 2007) In a surprising verdict, Thinley's DPT won by a surprising landslide of forty-five out of forty-seven seats, while Ngedup lost in his own constituency to a schoolteacher. The PDP's comprehensive defeat revealed that even the uneducated rural populace cannot be won over by unrealistic promises and temporary benefits such as the campaign luncheons and entertainments that the PDP showered on them. In contrast to the international depictions of Bhutan as politically innocent, the Bhutanese public has proven to be savvy and ready for democracy.

The result also indicates that royalism isn't as deeply ingrained in the Bhutanese populace as the unwary observer may be led to believe. In spite of the virtually universal respect for the two monarchs, the votes confirmed people's inconspicuous distrust of the royal in-laws and the fear that they may attempt to fill the vacuum left by the kings. Although the DPT's overwhelming victory was largely attributed to its outstanding leadership, it also suggests a call for moderate change and stable government, since the party has at its helm five former ministers and several senior bureaucrats.

Today, Bhutan takes pride in having successfully completed its election in order and peace, without clamour and tumult but with a difference. With the people's representatives to both the national council and national assembly elected, and the five members of the national council appointed by the king, the country is waiting for the bicameral parliament to be formally convened.

Bhutanese, relishing the taste of the royal "gift" and with no serious misgiving, have taken their first bold democratic step and await what democracy has in store for them as events unfold. But for now, its attention is drawn to the coronation of the fifth king, whose presence remains undiminished.

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