Bhutan: Democratically Challenged?

21 May, 2013    ·   3941

Marian Gallenkamp addresses the objections and criticism against Bhutanese democracy

There are a number of analysts and activists who would strongly reject the question mark at the end of this commentary’s title, and instead replace it with an exclamation mark. Then there are others, whose romanticised vision of a last ‘Shangri La’ cloud their perspective on the, not so romantic, reality of politics and governance. In seeking the middle ground between the activist and the idealist, this piece tries to disentangle and rectify some of the objections and criticism most commonly voiced against Bhutanese democracy.

Firstly, time and again, the sincerity of Bhutan's unique transition to democracy has been questioned. More precisely, the intentions of His Majesty the fourth king of Bhutan have been viewed with suspicion on the ground that his move towards democracy was merely a PR-stunt to gain international legitimacy, avoid public pressure, satisfy his subjects' demands for participation and ultimately secure the position of the monarchy. However, there is no credible indication that the king was pressured into relinquishing his powers by the international community at large or India, Bhutan's closest ally and partner. Additionally, there had been next to no demands for democracy from within the country. To the contrary, people were remarkably apprehensive towards the idea of democracy, elections, political parties, and especially, the fact that the monarchy's powers were to be greatly reduced.

When the fourth king eventually announced that he would abdicate the throne, albeit being in his best years and having firmly guided his country through remarkable political reforms since the 1980s, the Bhutanese people were dismayed by the prospect and political observers were stunned. It appears to be a sad truth that the community of analysts, commentators, journalists, and activists has become so cynical that parts of it simply cannot comprehend and accept well-meant or even ulterior motives in the actions of political decision-makers anymore.

Secondly, the constitution and thus the supreme law and legal foundation for the country's democracy, promulgated in 2008, is viewed by some as being utterly undemocratic and still granting the king absolute or at least excessive powers. Since Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy, it should not surprise that the king plays a prominent role in the constitution. To describe his powers as excessive, however, is simply wrong and often results from arbitrarily citing particular articles and paragraphs, while ignoring others that, more often than not, directly precede them. Thus, claiming that the king can simply sack an elected government or dissolve parliament at his will is not true.

According to article 10(24) of the constitution, only the lower House of Parliament can be dissolved, either following a vote of no-confidence in the government, or by the king upon recommendation by the Prime Minister. The constitution also provides for term-limits for the PM (article 17(2)), the mandatory abdication of the king upon reaching the age of 65 (article 2(6)), the possibility of removing the king from office through a motion of abdication in parliament (article 2(20-25)). One should also note that although the king has the power to appoint a large number of key political, judicial, and administrative positions in large parts, he can only do so upon recommendation or shortlists provided by relevant agencies and bodies.

Lastly (and although that list could be extend), many people claim that the position and power of the monarchy has been carved into stone by the constitution, which at the end of article two (dealing with the institution of the monarchy) states that, “Parliament shall make no laws or exercise its powers to amend the provisions of this Article and section 2 of Article 1“. Most critics, however, conveniently ignore the last part of this section in which the people of Bhutan are granted the fundamental right to change these provisions, including the form of government, through a national referendum (article 2(26)).

Thirdly, the allegation that many fundamental rights and freedoms are being curtailed by the government, that human rights are being violated, the press being censored, and political opponents linger in jails is almost completely unsubstantiated and exclusively based on unverifiable and unreliable sources, if at all. This is not to say that all is perfect in Bhutan, but, for example, a lack of criticism of the king in Bhutanese media does not necessarily mean that it is being censored, it might simply indicate that the king has not done anything to be criticised for.

Finally, most of the charges raised against Bhutanese democracy, including the ones presented above, eventually come down to the issue of the Nepalese refugees. Without stepping on, and maybe falling off, that thin red line of taking a position with regard to that conflict, I would like to end this article on the following note: Arbitrarily citing reports of refugees, who have not set foot into Bhutan for more than two decades, in order to prove claims of human rights violations and the like is definitely not the most reliable way of making a point. Similarly, trying to tarnish Bhutan’s democratic credentials on the grounds that exiled parties from the camps are excluded from the political process appears to be a lukewarm argument (especially when considering the opaque nexus between different militant outfits, political organisations, and mass agitations in refugee camps). On that line, the criticism that the people in the camps are not allowed to vote in Bhutanese elections warrants no further discussion.

By and large, questioning the, albeit at times difficult, success and development of democracy in Bhutan on the grounds of arguments that centre around an alleged, real or perceived, injustice that dates back more than two decades is certainly not the most prudent way of denying due recognition for outstanding political developments.