Bhutan: Is Democracy a Reality?

21 May, 2013    ·   3940

Kunkhen Dorji studies why the country is under scrutiny over its conception of democracy

According to the government of Bhutan, the first historical election on 24 March 2008 was a huge success, and democracy is on the right track in the Himalayan kingdom. But many are critical of such analyses and assert that it is a controlled democracy and the monarchy still calls the shots.

Why is Bhutan still under scrutiny with respect to monarchy, democracy, and the much celebrated free and fair elections? The rulers have always maintained that the country is free and the government enjoys legitimacy. But calls for scrutiny emerge from the fact that there are still reports of human rights abuses, along with the question of political prisoners and refugee issues that have not yet been resolved under the democratic government.

Genuine or Farce?
Mathew Joseph C, the author of the book, Ethnic Conflict in Bhutan, argued that the King’s “democratization project” is intended at “silencing the demand for real democracy that the democratic movement of Bhutanese people who were expelled from the country had raised”. He further stated that elections were “to hoodwink the international community” into accepting that Bhutan was a democracy.

The upcoming second general elections and the positive publicity around democracy in Bhutan do look attractive to many in the international community because of the success of the peaceful transition from absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy. The process has gathered its own momentum so to speak. It could be argued that there is a PR strategy at work.

Bhutan, as a country, has somehow always been romanticised by the media. Most of the news coverage talk about the extremely benevolent Monarch with his unique economic policy called Gross National Happiness (GNH). In Bhutan, democracy is understood as a “gift” given to its citizen by the King.

With the establishment of democracy, the Election Commission and two party system was established (both pro-monarchy), but the exiled parties were banned from contesting the general elections, and a constitution was promulgated. It gives absolute power to the King.

Constitution: Tool of the Palace?
The Constitution of Bhutan grants enormous powers to the monarchy. The King has been vested with absolute power to sack the elected Prime Minister or his Cabinet. He has enormous legislative powers such as to convene extraordinary sessions, to nominate eminent persons that constitute 20% of the Upper House, and has the right to block Bills that are unanimously passed by both legislatures.

In addition to the powers given to the Monarch, Article 2 of the Constitution prohibits the Parliament from amending any of his constitutional powers. Some critics believe that the Constitution, in fact, has given legitimacy to the King’s absolute power and that violates the very essence of the Constitution.

Under the National Security Act of 1992, it is treason to speak against the King, people, and the country. Many people who were involved in criticising the King and the government were jailed and eventually convicted under this Act. There are reports that over hundred such political prisoners are languishing in Bhutanese jails, even after the establishment of democracy and human rights.

Is it Inclusive in the True Sense?
More than 20% of the total population of Bhutan are of Nepali origin. The Election Commission has been accused of discriminating against the minority, especially towards the 1,000,000 refugees languishing in the camps of Jhapa, in Nepal. These refugees were not included in voters’ list and hence not allowed to participate in the elections. Even the political parties in exile were not allowed to register; hence, a big question mark on the independence of the Election Commission comes to the fore. Many believe that it was a clear message sent to the people of Bhutan and outside, that the refugees have no stake in the politics of Bhutan.

There are also reports of discrimination against the different sects of Buddhism and other religions in Bhutan. Many critics believe that in reality, nothing has changed in Bhutan in spite of having established democracy and the success of the first ever general elections. Many critics believe that the only beneficiaries of the changes in Bhutan are the small elite class, who have been able to manipulate the democratic institutions for their whims and fancies.

Finally, Bhutan still has a lot of problems to resolve; not only internal issues, but also beyond the borders. The large chunk of its southern and eastern Bhutanese population, who were sent into exile during the pro-democratic movement in the early 1990s are still banned from entering the country. Bhutan has to recognise and address its ethnic conflicts that exist today, before it is too late. There is an urgent need for reconciliation with the democratic forces in exile and make the democracy truly participatory in nature.