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“Unpredictability” in Bhutan’s elections

Some issues flagged up in the candidates’ manifestos are revealing. These are protecting the rule of law, youth employment, balanced economic development, pro-poor laws and strong institutions.

Medha Bisht
17 May 2013
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Demotix/Morgan Ommer. All rights reserved.

“The elections in 2013 will be unpredictable.” This was a response I received from a high standing official when I visited Thimpu last summer. When I asked, “Why?”, I was told that the “Bhutanese voters are unpredictable.” However, other experts in Thimpu gave me the distinct impression that the current incumbent party - Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), would win the elections, if only because of the lack of viable alternatives - and not due to their popularity. The decisions undertaken by the incumbent government have not gone down so well with the public. 

It is official now that five political parties will contest the 2013 elections at the end of May. While the DPT, still holds sway, given that it is the only political party with 47 candidates in place to fight the elections (with eleven more to be fielded in the coming month), the other four, are yet to declare some of their candidates.  Most of the DPT candidates are well known and have been holding power for years now. They are experienced, popular faces and names in Bhutan’s political landscape. But it will be interesting to see which of the other four political parties rubs shoulders with the DPT thanks to the First Past The Post System (FPTP) adopted by Bhutan.   

According to FPTP, two rounds of elections will be held, in May and July. The first round will be the elimination round, where only two parties with maximum votes qualify for the second round. The second winners round is between the two leading parties. Political parties contesting the second round are sure to leave their footprint in Bhutan’s politics and the runner up to the winning party will occupy the place of the opposition party.

While the demographic weight is heavily tilted towards the southern districts as a decisive factor for the 2013 National Assembly elections, the voting pattern of the National Council  elections suggest an alternative scenario. According to a report in Kuensel, “ some dzongkhags (districts), with the smallest voting population had the highest voter turnout, in terms of percentage, while it was just the opposite for dzongkhags (districts) with a high number of voters.” The reason according to the leading news daily is that the community is more politically active in smaller districts than bigger ones. In bigger districts such as Trashigang, which has higher number of voters (41,222), the resultant turnout was only 33.5 percent, in contrast to Gasa, which has a low voting population (1,835), but recorded the highest voter turnout of  63 percent. The low voter participation rate (45.87 percent) in the National Council elections held in the third week of April has been an object of intense media scrutiny but there is a unanimous view that the National Assembly elections will be different in terms of participation.

National Council and the April 2013 elections 

The National Council (NC) is the upper house or the House of Review in Bhutan. It has a total of twenty-five seats. While twenty candidates are elected directly, five are nominated by the King. Given that the turnout for 2013 National Council elections has not been very encouraging, there have however been some surprises. First, the results suggest that an anti-incumbency sentiment has prevailed amongst the voters. Of all the candidates, only five have been re-elected.

Some issues flagged up in the candidates’ manifestos are revealing. These are protecting the rule of law, youth employment, balanced economic development, pro-poor laws and strong institutions—these issues are also indicative of the challenges facing Bhutanese society. The low turnout for the NC elections, as suggested by a few media analysts, was also due to the general perception that the NC was irrelevant. The House of Review, which should be staging debates on important matters of national concern is not implementing this task. The resounding victory of Sangay Khandu, M.P from Gasa district, is a pointer to the fact that bold initiatives are received well by the public. Khandu was in the news last year for initiating a draft of the Right to Information Bill.  Clearly transparency and accountability from the government has also been one of the rallying points in Bhutan.

National Assembly Elections: what’s ahead?

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Demotix/Morgan Ommer. All rights reserved.

If this reading is correct, the National Assembly elections could be structured around issues of good governance, balanced economic growth and inclusive development policies. Southern Bhutan, which hosts the maximum number of eligible voters could be a decisive player, also because it has been the hub for economic development. Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, for its part has had its difficult moments in the past two years. One of the major irritants has been the rupee crises, the blame for which has been solely attributed to DPT’s flawed economic policies.

However, the litmus test for the elections, must be a ‘viable alternative’. While many in Bhutan would refuse to believe that DPT will not be the winner in the forthcoming elections, it would indeed be interesting to see the alternative visions which the other political parties have to offer. Whether the NA elections are ‘predictable’ is therefore a question of debate.

An interesting issue in the years ahead would however be the role of the National Council and how it addresses the issues of governance, development and growth. The young voters in Bhutan and their views on issues of domestic and external policies could also impact on the debates and discussions in the coming years. Domestic spaces in Bhutan are thus indeed opening up. Given the nature of debates in the past years in Bhutan one can say with conviction, that in domestic politics, the King has voluntarily stepped aside and left the playground of politics open to all those who have political aspirations.

 

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