Bhutan’s tryst with democracy turns 10

Bhutan’s tryst with democracy turns 10

Suhasini Haidar,
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Bhutanese women standing in queue to cast their votes at a polling station in Samdrupjongkhar district of Bhutan in July 2013.   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

The third general election in the Himalayan nation, to be conducted later this month, will see a four-cornered race, bringing to the fore the complexities of a multi-party democracy.

The deafening sounds belted out at Thimphu’s most popular nightclub, Mojo Park, don’t drown out the chatter outside about elections. Bhutan’s young voters now face the Himalayan Kingdom’s third election as a full-fledged democracy, a decade after its fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck decreed it.

Even as protesters have agitated around the world for more democratic powers, the Bhutanese have been reluctant democrats, with a large number of people still saying they would happily go back to monarchy. “We don’t want all these choices,” said 21-year-old Tshering, a first time voter. “Our monarchy unites us, but democracy divides us,” she added.

The sentiment reflects the polarisation that multi-party democracy brings. This election will see a four-cornered race, with two new parties: the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) and the Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP). They are pitted against the ‘old guard’ of the two parties that won elections in 2008 and 2013 respectively — the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), led by outgoing Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, who is well-known in India. All four parties have promises for the voter, but their ideologies aren’t very different: self-reliance, good governance and an end to corruption are part of every party’s campaign.

Most young voters said that their biggest demand from the government is jobs. Bhutan’s population has grown from 7,00,000 to 8,00,000 in the last 10 years, and while its primary school enrolment rate hovers between 95% and 100%, growth in skilled jobs has not kept pace. “We need a social agenda more than ever,” said DPT vice-president Lily Wangchuk, a former diplomat who is a candidate from North Thimphu.

Online media, and fake news

Another challenge for politicians is the growth of online media as a source of news. Bhutan has around 4,00,000 Facebook accounts, while its registered voters are only about 4,32,000. “All political parties are victims of fake news,” said PDP spokesperson Tashi Dorji. Last year, a report the government denied claimed that it planned to privatise medical care, which is mandated by the Constitution to be free. “It took us months to convince people that there was no such plan,” he said, throwing up his hands.

Fake news was not a problem when Bhutan’s former King and his advisers planned for their fledgling democracy, but they did factor in some issues with elections elsewhere. Unlike India, for example, Bhutan’s government hands over power to an interim government led by the Chief Justice, so as to oversee impartial elections. All candidates must be graduates, and parties must field candidates for all 47 constituencies to prove that they are national. Also, unlike in the rest of South Asia, religion and politics don’t mix and monks, nuns, priests or any “robed persons of any religion” can’t stand for office or even vote. To avoid coalition politics, the election will have two rounds: the first to choose the two most popular parties on September 15, and a run-off on October 18 to declare the winner.

At his souvenir shop on the bustling Norzin Lam street, 75-year-old Dago grumbled that the system is complicated, and election season means that he is bothered by candidates asking for his vote everyday. “Everyone promises, and everyone lies,” he said cynically. This writer asked if he will boycott elections, given his dread of democratic processes. “Of course I will vote, because the King has told us to,” he replied.

Suhasini Haidar works for The Hindu and was recently in Thimpu

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