Bhutan Elections 2013: A Difficult Road Ahead?

24 Apr, 2013    ·   3894

Kunkhen Dorji analyses whether the process is genuine and if it will be able to provide a platform for multiple stakeholders

The upcoming general elections in Bhutan will see many new faces at the grass root level, but the same cannot be said about their party’s leadership who have served Bhutan in many distinguished fields. The Opposition are quite critical about the first elected government of Bhutan, but are not able to provide a good alternative model as a solution to the many domestic and foreign policy related matters affecting the country today.

Will this election see new faces, or the victory of the old guards? Will it be able to provide a platform for people without an affluent background, or is it still the elite class calling the shots? Finally, will it be able to silence its critics who see the election as eyewash and a controlled one?

Multi-Party System: Boon or Bane?
Unlike the 2008 elections, where only two political parties were allowed to participate, this time around, there will be 5 major political parties contesting the elections. These are: Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT), Bhutan Kuen-Ngyam Party (BKP), and Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT). The political parties in exile are still banned from contesting the 2013 general elections.

Among the five major political parties, Druk Chirwang Tshogpa has a woman as its President. Ms Lily Wangchuck is a well-known career diplomat, writer, and a social activist. She would also take up the mantle of the prime minister-ship, if her party wins the upcoming elections. Throughout its history, a woman has never been at the helm of the country’s political affairs; hence it would be interesting to see if the people of Bhutan accept a woman as the head of the government.

Compared to the 2008 elections, the people’s participation is overwhelming this time around. More than 67 candidates are contesting for the 20 seats in the National Council, as against 52 candidates contesting the 20 Council seats in the previous elections. Owing to many parties fighting the elections this mid-April, some political pundits indicate that the 2013 elections would be more about who will become the Opposition, and that somehow points towards the reality that the ruling party is unbeatable in the coming general elections and could smoothly form the next government too.

However, the Leader of Opposition, Tshering Tobgay, fears that such predictions would demoralise the workers of other political parties, and urges the political pundits, “To support the other parties so that they can offer credible alternatives and healthy competition”. Perhaps it will be a while before concepts of pro-incumbency and anti-incumbency will genuinely take root in Bhutanese Democracy.

Elections: An ‘Eyewash’?
Everything looks just about perfect in a country where Gross National Happiness is more important than the Gross National Product, but there are large sections of people who still have doubts about Bhutanese democracy and elections.

Mathew Joseph C, in his book, “Ethnic Conflict in Bhutan”, believes that the elections were to hoodwink the international community into a make believe scenario that Bhutan was a democracy and that it was, “Completely controlled by the monarchy and the Ngalong ruling beyond any sort of questioning”.

Some critics are of the opinion that the Prime Minister, Jigme Thinley, is the “brainchild” of monarchy. His successful five-year term in the office, in fact, indicates that the power continues to lie with the monarchy. The DPT government headed by Jigme Thinley, who has matrimonial relations with the royal family, is very much their favourite to lead the next government.

The election commission of Bhutan had refused to register the political parties in exile during the first general elections, and the same is the case again in 2013. These political parties are still banned in Bhutan, and to promote or propagate their ideology is seen as an anti-national activity.

The Road Ahead
Bhutan in 2013 is different from the time of the first general elections. Today, the people of Bhutan are more aware of their rights. They are being vocal and expressing their opinions on issues concerned with their day-to-day life, and also of national and international importance.

After the introduction of the Internet and television in 1997, many private channels have arrived on the scene. These media houses have been allowed to work independently. Numerous private newspapers and magazines flood the Bhutanese market today, but with strict rules and regulations laid down by the government; which thus leads to the big question mark on the independence of media in Bhutan.

Many critics believe that Bhutan has a long way to go in its democratisation process, with many hurdles in its way. Additionally, with people getting more aware of the affairs of the state, it will bring about a huge difference in shaping up democracy in the country. The 2013 elections will see many new faces and ideas, which will determine the future of not only where Bhutan is heading in its domestic politics, but also in matters related to international affairs.