The long way of consolidating and learning democracy: Bhutan’s local government elections 2011

Bhutan’s three-year-old democracy is slowly proceeding to strengthen its institutions. Since 2008, elections have been postponed several times, but the debates that evolved around the local elections point to how a young democracy progresses and, slowly, matures.
Marian Gallenkamp
13 September 2011

In 2008, the Kingdom of Bhutan successfully made its transition to democracy by electing representatives to the newly formed parliament (47-member National Assembly (Tshogdu) and 25-member National Council (Gyelyong Tshogde)) and by adopting the country’s first constitution. Now, more than three years after these historic events, democracy has finally been expanded to the local level. With two rounds of Local Government Elections on 21 January and 27 June 2011, Bhutan’s democratization has now reached the level of district, block, and municipal administration.

The origins of local governance in Bhutan can be traced back to the early 1980s. Like many other important reforms, the visionary fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, initiated a process of decentralization by dividing the country into 20 districts (Dzongkhags) and establishing district development committees (Dzongkhag Yargye Tshogchung, DYT) in each of them. A decade later, block development committees (Gewog Yargye Tshogchung, GYT) were formed on the county level as secondary administrative units. The reforms were aimed at strengthening the country’s socioeconomic development by giving the responsibility of planning and implementation of development activities into the hands of those that affect them. Consequently, democratically electing representatives to the institutions of local governance has been yet another important step in consolidating the country’s young democracy.

However, during the past three years, elections had been postponed several times and the road leading to polling day was a bumpy one with some surprising bends. While the delay of elections received much criticism within Bhutan and was seen as endangering the consolidation of democracy, the debates and controversies that evolved around the run-up to the elections point towards the interesting processes of learning and maturing in a democracy that is still comparatively young.

When institutions and their inherent procedures and rules are newly created, it takes time to learn and to understand them. Rules, prescribed by the constitution and other laws, have to be internalized and interpreted in practice. The authority and competence of institutions that are part of the decision-making process have to be defined, as has the relationship between them. In the case of Bhutan’s local government elections, issues concerning the constitutionality of sections within laws, the compatibility between different acts of law, and the authority and competence of the constitutional bodies involved (i.e. the government, parliament, and the election commission), as well as controversies regarding the legislative process evolved.

After a futile attempt to kick-start LG Elections in late 2008, in which the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) tried to pass on responsibility for conducting elections to the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs and the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement despite lacking a legal basis (Local Government Act) for the elections, the ECB was ordered to refrain from holding elections by royal decree (kasho).

Towards the end of the third session of parliament in July 2009, it became apparent that the proposed Local Government Act had some major points of contention. Among them were incompatibilities between the draft bill and the Land Act of 2007 pertaining to the competences of local governments and the Land Commission, disagreements about the early dissolution of local governments initiated through referendum (see section 63 (g) of the National Referendum Act, 2008), and, most important, the controversies about the restructuring of municipalities (Thromdes) as required by the constitution (article 22 sections 2 and 6 of the Constitution of Bhutan), but deemed unpractical by many politicians. Eventually the bill failed to secure the required two-thirds majority of the joint sitting of parliament, upon which the King of Bhutan was requested to command a special session of parliament. While the representatives of both houses were able to compromise on all issues and pass the bill unanimously in September 2009, another controversy pertaining to legislative procedures in general developed. Meanwhile, the ECB’s concerns, about some sections of the act that allegedly contradicted the constitution and about ‘flaws’ (e.g. parliamentary consent for the classification of type ‘A’ and ‘B’ Thromdes) that could further delay local elections, went unheard.

It took another year for parliament to agree on the classification of four class ‘A’ and sixteen class ‘B’ Thromdes, as stipulated by the compromise of 2009, but once again deadlock persisted when it came to the classification of Yenlag Thromdes (satellite towns). While the government expected elections to take place soon regardless of the still lingering dispute, the ECB again raised concerns over the constitutionality of such elections without previously demarcating and establishing the boundaries of satellite towns. After pressure from the government, the ECB eventually gave in and agreed to conduct LG Elections as a special one-time measure in two rounds. Thus, Elections for Thrompons (mayors) and Tshogpas (representatives for city council) in the four class ‘A’ Thromdes of Thimphu, Samdrup Jongkhar, Phuentsholing, and Gelephu were announced for 21st January 2011.

On polling day, 37 candidates contested the elections for the position of mayor (Thrompon) or city council representative (Dzongkhag Thromde Tshogde Tshogpa). As most residents of the capital and the other towns had moved there from rural areas, but still kept their census in those villages, the number of registered voters for the elections of Thrompons was only 8,462, for the election of Tshogpas just 7,137, as some constituencies lacked any candidate to conduct elections. The constituency size varied considerably between 6,226 and 614 voters for Thrompon elections and 27 to 1,634 voters for Tshogpa elections. Especially the latter position suffered from an acute lack of candidates. While voters could at least chose between two or three candidates for mayor, four Tshogpa constituencies (Demkhongs) remained vacant and another 16 constituencies went uncontested, leaving voters only with the choice to accept or reject the lone contender. Overall turnout was 50%.

In order to attract more candidates and voters, the ECB had decided to waive the one year mitsi (census/social registration) requirement for eligibility, which produced a prolonged controversy prior to the second, much larger round, as the decision was challenged on grounds of its unconstitutionality (cf. Constitution article 23 section 2(c), Election Act section 100(b), LG Act Section 21(b)). Adding to this were confusions and disputes on the required one-year cooling period for candidates’ party membership, as parties failed to follow proper procedures, which then resulted in the disqualification of candidates. When these controversies could not be solved, affected candidates and the parliamentarians of both houses again called upon the king to resolve the issue. By kasho, his Majesty ordered the ECB to resolve the pending issues first, before proceeding with the schedule for the elections. Consequently, the mitsi waiver was revoked and the eligibility of previously disqualified candidates was scrutinized again. The ECB was compelled to postpone the second round of elections one last time, declaring 27th June as the new polling day.

The second round of elections on 27 June 2011 posed much larger logistical and organizational challenges. In all 205 counties (Gewogs) of the 20 districts (Dzongkhags), elections were called for 205 county committee (Gewog Tshogde) headmen (Gups) and their deputies (Mangmis), 1,044 representatives to the county committees (Gewog Tshogde Tshogpas), 16 directly elected members (Dzongkhag Thromde Thuemis) from the class ‘B’ Thromdes to the respective district councils (Dzongkhag Tshogdu), and the remaining 5 municipal council members. All in all, 2,185 candidates contested the elections, after the nomination period had been extended, which resulted in the candidature of an additional 232 candidates. Also, 233 of the 259 earlier disqualified candidates could now be cleared by the ECB to contest elections.

More than 5,000 civil servants contributed decisively to the smooth course of elections. Officials had to walk for days to reach some of the 1,103 polling stations in remote areas. After two IED attacks rocked Phuentsholing and Gelephu on 22nd May, thousands of security personal ensured that elections went safe and without any incidents. Countrywide, 347,938 people were eligible to vote of which 194,952 or 56 % turned out on polling day.

Like in the first round of elections, the lack of qualified candidates for local government positions posed a serious problem. After 1,102 candidates were successfully elected on 27th June, 370 positions remained vacant. Only a single candidate contested elections in 535 constituencies, of which 31 candidates were rejected by the electorate. Women candidates were extremely underrepresented during both rounds of elections. Out of 37 candidates in the first round, only four were women, of which two had been elected. In the second round, 165 women out of 2,185 candidates contested elections, of which 76 were elected. Within the Bhutanese public, this issue has sparked concerns and debates.

Nevertheless, Bhutan’s first democratic local government elections have been a huge success, first and foremost for the Bhutanese people and also certainly for the ECB. Although a considerable number of positions could not be filled due to lack of candidates, probably pointing towards the limits of democracy in Bhutan at this stage, the ECB has shown a remarkable organizational capacity in conducting free, fair, and democratic elections of a large scale. Its election dispute settlement bodies have worked efficiently and transparently. During the elections, only minor glitches occurred, which were openly reported by the ECB and the media. In just a few years since its founding, the commission has rapidly developed into a professional and reliable institution and an important cornerstone of Bhutan’s young democracy.

Although it has not been an easy way to further consolidate its young democracy, the controversies and disputes should not be narrow-mindedly misinterpreted as indicating yet another problem-ridden, struggling democracy. The debates show a growing consciousness and awareness among the public, the media, and the political elites. Learning how to cope with and to solve conflicts of the above described nature is a fundamental part of the democratic consolidation process. Equally important is the interpretation and application of laws, as that requires a thorough understanding of them, to question their compatibility and to detect flaws, problems and loopholes. Democratically electing local governments in Bhutan might have been a long and bumpy way, but this is definitely preferable to simply bending the laws and forcing elections just for the sake of holding them.

Finally, it should also be mentioned that the King of Bhutan has honored his commitment to democracy and has prevailed in his responsibilities. Holding a master’s degree in political science, his decisions have been well-informed and he was able to overcome political impasse. At the same time, the people and politicians have begun to realize that they cannot call upon their king every time a political conflict arises. Learning democracy also means to learn how to solve conflicts amicably through political processes and not through a higher arbiter.

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