GUWAHATI, India, 3 October 2018
With tremendous enthusiasm among the common residents, Bhutan is going for its third national (general) elections on 18 October. Two political parties are in the contest for the new regime in Thimphu, but India’s dependable party has already lost the primary round of polls.
Sandwiched between India and Tibet (now under Chinese occupation), the Buddhist nation has been ruled by various dynasties for centuries. However, Jigme Singye Wangchuk proposed for transforming Bhutan into a democratic constitutional monarchy. The Druk democracy witnessed its first-ever elections in March 2008, and prior to that Oxford educated prince Jigme Khesar was crowned as the ceremonial Head of State.
The nascent democracy of the Himalayan nation had completed the primary round of elections on 15 September, where the ruling party and also New Delhi’s trusted People’s Democratic Party (PDP) emerged a loser. It means the party of outgoing Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay will be no longer in the political battle on the final round.
Two political parties, Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), which had received the highest number of votes in the primary round, are now contesting for their shares in the National Assembly with altogether 47 seats. The fourth party, contested in the first round with an aim to get qualified for the final one, was the Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP).
The Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) allows any number of registered political parties to contest in the primary round of polls, but the final round is reserved only for two parties with the highest number of votes. Naturally the winning party forms the government in Thimphu, where the other one plays the role of opposition in the National Assembly, which is considered the lower house of Bhutanese Parliament.
Unlike India, all poll candidates vying for Bhutan Assembly are necessary to be a graduate that actually limits the choice as Bhutan has only 3000 graduates. The nominees have to attend poll campaign meetings in their respective constituency one by one. The arrangements help the electorate to understand the ability (at least oratory) and visions of their future political representatives.
The Land of the Thunder Dragon has 438,663 registered voters out of a population of 735,553. Besides electronic voting machines (EVM), postal ballots were also used in the electoral process, where 66.36 percent of the voters exercised their franchise. The outcome was better than that of the last primary round participation (55.3% in 2013).
Relatively a newcomer, the DNT emerged victorious in the primary poll, receiving 31.8% of total votes cast. It was followed by DPT (30.9%), which was in opposition during 2013-2018, and PDP (27.4%) and BKP (9.7%). DNT won in 16 constituencies and registered supports from 92,722 voters, whereas DPT succeeded in 22 constituencies, but could secure only 90,020 votes. They were followed by PDP (79,883 votes) and BKP (28,841 votes).
The first general elections were won by the Jigmi Y Thinley-led DPT, and he became the first democratically-elected Prime Minister of Bhutan. The next national polls in July 2013 witnessed the victory for PDP, following which its leader Tshering Tobgay became the new premier. A dependable pro-India politician Tobgay resigned along with his council of ministers on 9 August to pave the way for an interim administration.
Unlike India, the political parties in the largely mountainous country have to nominate candidates in each constituency (Demkhong). Otherwise a party is not considered as being prepared fully for the electoral exercise. So there is no concept of regional political leaders in Bhutan. Moreover, the Druk authority discourages any candidate with ultra regional or ethnic identities.
Similar to Bangladesh, the regime in Thimphu has to resign before the elections and an interim government is formed to look after the country till a new government is formed. The Bhutan king, who functions as the President of the country with enormous power, appoints the interim government.
This time, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck appointed Bhutan’s chief justice Tshering Wangchuk as chief advisor to the interim administration, with members namely Karma Ura (president of Centre for Bhutan Studies), Penjore (Governor of Royal Monetary Authority), Ugen Chewang (chairman of Druk Holding & Investments Ltd), Chhewang Rinzin (managing director of Druk Green Power Corporation Ltd), Karma Tshiteem (chairperson of Royal Civil Service Commission), Kinley Yangzom (chairperson of Anti-Corruption Commission), Nidup Dorji (vice-chancellor of Royal University of Bhutan) and Bachu Phub Dorji (managing director of Kuensel Corporation Ltd).
Earlier Bhutan completed the elections to National Council, which is considered as the upper house of Parliament, on 20 April. The NC has 20 elected members from 20 Dzongkhags. Five members are nominated by the monarch. The NC polls are conducted on non-party basis and the last exercise witnessed the polling percentage of 54.3.
Tobgay was otherwise a familiar name in Assam, as he visited Guwahati many times with some important initiatives. His gracious presence in Advantage Assam initiative was appreciated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi also. With his initiative a Bhutanese consulate office was opened in Guwahati last year and a direct Druk air service from Paro to Singapore via Guwahati in addition to Paro-Guwahati-Bangkok flight was started.
Political observers in Thimphu believe that the Bhutanese people have given mandates for change in the primary round. Tobgay also admitted that anti-incumbency played a major role against his party. However he conceded defeat saying that “the will of the people must prevail in a democracy.” The fifty crossed politician congratulated DNT and DPT, and with their candidates for the forthcoming general elections.
On the other hand, DNT president Dr Lotay Tshering expressed his gratitude to the electorate of Bhutan for their victory in the primary round. A practicing doctor-turned-politician emphasized affordable healthcare facilities for every Bhutanese. The political inclination of DNT towards New Delhi or Beijing is yet to be revealed.
Meanwhile Pema Gyamtsho, who took charge of DPT from Beijing favorite Thinley, thanked the people of Bhutan for their continued support and assured them that they would not replace any candidate with others (read PDP nominee) in the final round. Gyamtsho disclosed that all existing 47 party candidates were advised to file their nominations to the returning officers.
The electoral promises of all political parties remain the same since 2008, revolving around the development of schools, hospitals, roads, electricity, drinking water, cell phone services, tourism, and tax reform. Every political party continues to fight corruption, which is now omnipresent in all sectors of Bhutan. They all want to continue their mission making the beautiful country also a land of happiness.
About the author
Nava Thakuria is a media activist based in Guwahati of northeast India. He has been covering socio-political developments of northeast India, along with its neighbours Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, for various media outlets for more than two decades.