An Outsider’s View of Bhutan’s Democratic Experiment

An Outsider’s View of Bhutan’s Democratic Experiment

Bhuchung K. Tsering

March 16, 2013

With the announcement of April 23, 2013 as the date for elections to the National Council, exciting days are ahead for Bhutan as the country gears itself to its second general elections following democratization process of 2008. This time the situation has become more interesting in quite a few ways.

First, and the most important of all, is the birth of several political parties. In addition to the existing ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and the lone opposition, People’s Democratic Party (PDP), three more parties have registered themselves with the Election Commission of Bhutan. They are Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT), Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (DKP), and Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT).

The very existence of more than two parties vying for seats means that there will be a vociferous attempt by the candidates to secure the vote. Additionally, the Bhutan Election Commission’s website lists a variety of voter awareness campaigns it has launched in order to evoke more participation from the citizens.  These will all result in a more vocal campaign. As it is, even before the dates of the elections were set, and even before some of the parties were formally registered, we could see their active presence in the media. The Chief Election Commissioner of Bhutan, Dasho Kunzang Wangdi, himself is an active Twitter person (@KunzangW) and uses the medium to generate greater awareness of the electoral process, including in responding to specific queries.

The spurt of political parties is matched by comparatively more assertive Bhutanese public, as reflected in the media.  I believe for the first ever elections in 2008, the Bhutanese public gave some grace period to politicians as they were undergoing the experience for the first time.  In fact, the authorities had to conduct a mock election in 2007 to sensitize the public and aspiring candidates, and educate them about the new process. Today, the Bhutanese public has become more experienced and more demanding. I have seen quite a few editorials and interviews with spokespersons of the political parties, both in the print media and on BBS, Bhutan’s lone TV channel, and it is clear people want clear answers to frank questions.

In the process, a few challenges to the Bhutanese political system can be observed.  First, despite there being five different political parties, there is difficulty in the party leaders being able to clearly provide ideological features that distinguishes one from the other. In another words, the political parties’ difference seems to be more in the aspirational and tactical context than ideological.  This and the smallness of the Bhutanese population could be an issue in the longevity of the political parties, particularly in the post-election era.

Secondly, there is an attempt by the political leaders to break away from the traditional trait of humility (understating one’s strength while hyping one’s drawbacks) and becoming more aggressive, including in making assertions that can have features of personal attacks.   While such campaigning tactics might be appropriate in a country with a sizable voting population with well-honed history of democracy, unless one is careful it might have negative social consequences in a small well-knit community.  The voting public and the politicians need to clearly differentiate between personalities and issues and realize that difference on issues should be seen in its proper perspective. A small community might only have a smaller pool of well-qualified people who can be leaders and it is only in the long-term interest of the Bhutanese nation to see that the political campaign process does not lead to permanent discord amongst the people who can do some good for the society at large.

Thirdly, if we go by media perception alone, there might be a sense that there is greater voter awareness, but could it be that there is a rural-urban divide? It is true that the educated urban population seem to be enthusiastic about this election like never before.  On the other hand, the rural population might still be struggling to catch up with what the democratic process is all about. The newspaper, Kuensel, reports the feeling of a local official that “people don’t take election-related meetings seriously, because of a gap between the elected members and voters.” Since the authorities are aware of this gap, one of the challenges for this election and to whichever party is elected to run the government is to see they can put democracy in context to the ordinary people and to make the people realize in concrete terms the value of democracy in their day to day existence.

It is an exciting time for the Bhutanese people and here is wishing them a robust election campaign and a successful outcome.  Here are the websites of the Bhutan Election Commission and the different political parties, for those who want to know more.

Election Commission of Bhutan

Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT)

People’s Democratic Party (PDP)

Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (DKP)

Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT)

Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT)

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