Voters in Bhutan will head to the polls on September 15 to decide who among the four political parties will contest for the general round on October 18. The National Assembly of the second Parliament dissolved on August 1 to make way for the 90-day interim government. On August 9, His Majesty the King appointed the advisors of the interim government. All these developments are part of the run-up to the third General Elections in Bhutan.
Four political parties have registered to contest the primary round. Bhutan’s Constitution allows any number of registered political parties to contest the primary round, but only two parties that secure the highest and the second highest number of total votes go to the general round. The winner then forms the government, while the loser takes up the role of the opposition.
Bhutan became the world’s youngest democracy in 2008 when the fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck decided to change the country’s political system to a Democratic Constitutional Monarchy. In 2006, the fourth King abdicated the throne and installed his eldest son as the new king. His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was formally crowned in 2008, the same year Bhutan elected its first democratic government.
Parties and their vision
The four parties are People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), and Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP). Both first (2008) and second (2013) elections saw PDP and DPT making it to the general round, with former winning in 2013 and the later forming the first democratically elected government in 2008.
Electoral laws require all registered political parties to submit a tentative list of candidates and a letter of intent to the Election Commission if they wish to contest the primary round. All four parties have now introduced their 47 candidates. They have all held national conventions and are now in the field campaigning for the primary round.
Tshering Tobgay, prime minister from 2013 through 2018, and also the opposition leader from 2008 through 2013, leads People’s Democratic Party. He is campaigning on the need for continuity to consolidate the gains of a young democracy. At the presidential debate on August 26, he told the people of Bhutan that PDP had brought about unprecedented socioeconomic development, peace, and prosperity. “This is why we deserve continuity,” he said, adding that his government had empowered the people at the grassroots with more authority, responsibility, and resources.
The former agriculture and forests minister, Pema Gyamtsho, leads DPT. Pema Gyamtsho was the opposition leader from 2013 through 2018. A savvy development worker, he is enticing voters with his idea of national self-reliance by 2025. An uphill task as it certainly seems, he feels his party has the experience to weather the challenges. He has promised that DPT would further develop agriculture and tourism sectors. He has also vouched for media freedom.
DNT and BKP are the newbies. DNT contested the primary round in 2013 along with now-disbanded party called Druk Chirwang Tshogpa. It lost the contest then and saw some of its capable candidates—including the party president and vice president—defect to PDP. Many voters still doubt its independence with some dubbing the party as PDP’s ‘B’ Team.
Nevertheless, its president, a medical surgeon, made a sensation of sorts when some trolls misconstrued his speech at the presidential debate. “If you do not change the party this year, there will be a bloodshed in 2023,” a local newspaper quoted him. President Lotey Tshering later said he was misunderstood. He feels social inequity is ever widening despite the many successes of the past governments.
“This is why, for 2018, DNT’s guiding principle is to narrow the gap between haves and have-nots,” he told the country recently. “Disparity in healthcare is the biggest issue since it affects progress in all other sectors.”
BKP’s maverick woman president, Neten Zangmo, who served as Bhutan’s first Anti-Corruption Commissioner, feels her party’s main goal is to remain incorruptible. She says the rules of the game have to be fair, and all political parties have to abide by the country’s electoral laws. She has been repeatedly reminding voters to fight those who coerce and intimidate them during campaigns.
No real ideology yet
All four parties do not have any distinct ideology. Like in the past two elections, they are campaigning on short-term pledges—roads, schools, drinking water, human-wildlife conflict, electricity, mobile services, and sundries. On a broader level, all have said they will fight corruption, but none has explained how.
In Bhutan, corruption is deeply entrenched in all sectors. A recent investigation by the Anti-Corruption Commission revealed rampant corruption in public road construction. Favoritism, nepotism, bribery, abuse of functions, breach of procurement norms, among others, continue to be reported as major corrupt practices in all sectors. The Royal Audit Authority has made similar observations in its annual reports.
Parties have not explained how they will fix bigger national issues like external debt, ballooning national debt, youth unemployment, crime, disaster management, climate change, rural poverty, and trade deficit. No party has developed a comprehensive framework on these pressing issues.
Some common themes the parties have touched upon during various media interaction, as well as at conventions, include revamping the private sector, youth and employment, social and income inequity, and women empowerment, among others.
Turnouts at the conventions indicate fairly even support for all four parties, although field workers say support base at the grassroots vary significantly.
In the meanwhile, the Election Commission has cautioned the political parties to refrain from serving free meals and refreshments or make any sort of gift to voters during campaigns. Candidates are also not allowed to use any title, insignia, or symbol of an office held earlier. This is primarily done to create a level playing field.