In his post-election talks after losing the recent primary round of the country’s third National Assembly election, the leader of People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Tshering Tobgay, has been telling supporters that the party will continue to play an active role from outside the Parliament.
However, constitutionally speaking, any political party that fails to make it to the general round has no official role whatsoever. 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.
Four political parties contested the primary round on 15 September. A new party—Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT)—secured the highest number of votes followed by the incumbent opposition party Druk Phuenseum Tshogpa (DPT). DNT and DPT will now contest the runoff, called the general round, slated for October 18. The losing parties—PDP and Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP)—will now have to wait for five years to participate in Bhutan’s political life.
This is where former Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay’s claim that PDP will continue to play a political role becomes relevant, especially since PDP and BKP will have no formal voice in Bhutan’s Parliament.
In November 2017, the PDP government and Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) exchanged fierce salvos about the legitimacy of parties not represented in Parliament. Tshering Tobgay had alluded that, despite its absence in Parliament, DNT had issued official press releases to the media to suit its political interest by criticizing the PDP government’s certain decisions. He hinted that a party that had no representation in Parliament couldn’t issue official press releases.
His party now faces a similar dilemma. The incumbent PDP was confident of moving on to the general round until certain segments of voters thwarted its ambitions of a back-to-back victory. Therefore, how PDP will continue to contribute to national debates despite its absence in Parliament begs attention to some caveats in the Constitution itself, specifically Article 15. Experience is now proving that Bhutan’s so-called multiparty democracy ends with the primary round. After the primary round, it is strictly a two-party affair.
The drafters of the Constitution believed that multiparty representation would paralyze Parliament. Examples are aplenty in the region. Political coalitions tend to be shaky. The drafters believed that a coalition of parties would not necessarily guarantee a strong and effective government. They agreed on only two parties for the general round, an automatic fix to all potential deadlocks.
Now, come to think about it, what happens to these parties when their supporters are forced to rally around a new party for the general round? Even otherwise, how do the supporters of these ‘failed’ parties make themselves relevant to the polls? The Constitution leaves them with no choice but to engage in horse-trading. They must support one of the two winning parties if they are to expect some sort of representation in Parliament.
Thus, certain clauses of Article 15 curtail pluralism and participation thereby consequently weakening the very foundation for a strong democratic tradition. Add to this other diluters: apolitical National Council, apolitical local government, apolitical civil service, and disfranchised religious domain. The pool of participation only shrinks, especially when one realizes that almost half the population can’t vote because it’s an adult and secular franchise.
Political parties must be formed as long-term public institutions and they should muster credibility through active participation in elections, and sometimes by winning elections. However, given the limitations set by the Constitution, people might be of the perception that political parties are encouraged with the myopic vision of fulfilling the short-term democratic agenda.
Democracy can only be deepened if people actively participate in politics through the parties of their choice that have fair representation in Parliament. The Constitution, again, by declaring the local government apolitical further curtails political participation, and limits people’s engagement in political affairs.
Deepening democracy means creating a vibrant political culture, and this can happen only when there are thriving political parties that create smart politicians who rally around a set of political ideas that set the tone of public policies. Public debates must become livelier and dissent must be tolerated. A major challenge if democracy needs to be deepened will be in building the capacity of parties. Without functional multiple parties that stand on differing ideologies but with common national goals, the danger of democracy remaining within the confines of polling stations is real.
A politically illiterate electorate might not bother so much for fairness of representation in Parliament so long as their needs and wants are met, but a matured electorate may not participate in the general round where the parties of their choice are not contesting. In other words, this disenchanted electorate might choose to forego an unrepresentative political participation.
Let’s take an example: four parties—A, B, C, and D—are participating in the primary round, and B and D garner most votes, which means they are constitutionally granted legitimacy to contest the general round. However, the fact that they have failed to be among the top two performers in the primary round has rendered A and C irrelevant for the moment. And to add insult to their injuries, their supporters now have no choice but to either abstain from voting in the general round or must quickly defect to either of the two parties contesting the general round.
A couple of disconcerting observations can be made here: first, the voters of Party A and C have lost their political identity either way (whether they abstain or legitimately horse-trade); second, democracy is tacitly encouraging disfranchisement. This certainly will neither help in deepening democracy nor in building a democratic culture.
We have seen that for the parties that don’t go beyond the primary round, the issue is about their very existence. They need funds to maintain the party structure and sustain their presence until the next election. In the meanwhile, they must prove their relevance in the public sphere by negotiating outside-the-Parliament role with the ruling and the opposition parties.
The question is: what possible role could these parties play?
For one, these parties with no formal role in governance should continue to provide platforms for formal political engagement to their supporters. They could help communities remain connected to politics after the polls. To their supporters these parties will represent political inclusion in the wider sense of reaching out to policymakers, and the very existence (even after the primary round defeat) of the party that one supports is itself an incentive to engage in politics.
The third parties can also play a more traditional role of protest vehicle as practiced in the American system. In fact, the importance of third parties becomes pronounced when people believe that the major two parties (the ruling and the opposition) have neglected issues of importance or have become unresponsive to their needs.
Otherwise, in absence of a wider public space for political bargains, voters are bound to rally around the winner simply because one that governs also delivers. And this defeats the vision of a multiparty democracy. Especially if voters offer a sweeping win to one party and leave the other completely weakened and disillusioned. Of course, the other, and perhaps wiser, option is to build institutions that will help build the capacity of political parties – both winners and losers.
Gopilal Acharya is the creator of The Talking Hills. He is an award winning journalist and has written for CNN, South Asian Monitor, The Straits Times, Scroll.in, The Telegraph, Kuensel, Bhutan Times, and The Journalist, among others. He is the author of Bhutanese Folk Tales (From the East and the South) and Dancing to Death (a book of poems). The manuscript of his debut novel, With a Stone in My Heart, was longlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize. His poetry and fiction have appeared in Asia Literary Review and Himal Southasian.