By Gopilal Acharya
With the primary round set for mid-September, the electoral wheel is now in motion. The National Assembly of the second Parliament dissolved on August 1 to make way for the 90-day interim government. On August 9, His Majesty the King appointed the advisors of the interim government. All these developments are part of the run-up to the third General Elections in Bhutan.
Four political parties are gearing up to contest the primary round. Two of them will exit the fray after the primaries, while another two will lock horns for the general round sometime in late October or early November. Bhutan’s Constitution allows any number of registered political parties to contest the primary round, but only two parties that garner the maximum number of popular votes go into the general round. The winner then forms the government, and the loser takes up the role of the opposition.
The four parties
The four parties are People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), and Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP). Both first (2008) and second (2013) rounds saw PDP and DPT making it to the general round, with former winning in 2013 and the later forming the first democratically elected government in 2008.
All four parties have now introduced their 47 candidates, except DPT. Its Dophuchen-Tading seat is still unfilled. Rumor has it that the party is set to reintroduce its former candidate from the constituency. Electoral laws require all registered political parties to submit a tentative list of candidates and a letter of intent to the Election Commission if they wish to contest the primary round.
They have all held national conventions where they showcased their strength and intent through popular support and newly minted slogans. DPT has reiterated the principle of ‘Equity and Justice’ as its official slogan, while DNT has chosen ‘Narrowing the Gap’ to give what it claims fresh hope to the people. While BKP has mostly talked about widening the choice pool through equality and inclusivity, PDP’s new unique selling point is ‘Unity, Stability and Prosperity’.
What parties lack
All four parties do not have any real ideology. Like in the past two elections, they are campaigning on short-term pledges—roads, schools, drinking water, human-wildlife conflict, electricity, mobile services, and sundries. On a broader level, all have said they will fight corruption, but none has explained how.
Corruption is deeply entrenched in all sectors. A recent publication by the Anti-Corruption Commission reported rampant corruption in public road construction amounting to Nu 467.67 million between 2010 and 2015. Favoritism, nepotism, bribery, abuse of functions, breach of procurement norms, among others, continue to be reported as major corrupt practices. The Royal Audit Authority makes similar observation in all its annual reports.
Parties have not explained how they will fix bigger national issues like the ballooning external debt, youth unemployment, crime, disaster management, climate change, rural poverty, and trade deficit. No party has developed a comprehensive framework on these pressing issues.
Some common themes the parties have touched upon during various media interaction, as well as at conventions, include revamping the private sector, youth and employment, social and income inequity, and women empowerment, among others.
Turnouts at the conventions indicate fairly even support for all four parties, although field workers say support base at the grassroots vary significantly. PDP and DPT are expected to enjoy a broader support base, followed by DNT and BKP. All four parties look stronger than the last time.
A festival of mudslinging
Bhutan’s young parties and politicians are still learning the art of public debate, which at the moment is at the lowest possible denominator. There are daily mudslinging, mainly between PDP and DPT, the government and the opposition until recently. Most politicians take up cheap mudslinging instead of matured arguments.
There is the need for more public debate to assess parties and candidates, and what they stand for. There is a need for respectable leadership, and the need to look at the bigger picture. There is the need for a national vision and ideals. At the moment, political candidates seem to be equipped with nothing but a shopping list, euphemistically called pledges.
People say mudslinging is already leading to trust erosion among voters. They say politicians must display maturity that befits the public office they are vying for. In 2013, at a political debate, an illiterate elderly woman reprimanded Bhutan’s political leadership for the poor display of public discipline and maturity. She told parties and politicians must grow up.
The two parties that collect the highest popular votes will go on to contest the general round. For the two losing parties, it is back to the starting line. Their supporters too have to quickly make up their mind as to who they want to cast their vote for in the general round.
Experience is now telling that Bhutan’s so-called multiparty democracy ends with the primary round. 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.
It’s against this backdrop that two of the four parties will have no choice but to end their political aspirations after the primaries. This means supporters of the two losing parties will have to rally around a new party for the general round. The Constitution leaves them with no choice but to horse-trade. They must quickly choose between the two parties and declare allegiance if they are to expect a fair representation in Parliament.
Parties also horse-trade candidates after the primary round. Say, if their candidate has lost to the candidate of the losing parties, then they swiftly welcome on-board the new candidate to replace their losing candidate. For example, after the primary round in May 2013, PDP took seven candidates from DNT to bolster its chances against DPT in the general round. It included DNT’s president and vice president who both won in the general round and went on to become the speaker and a minister in the PDP cabinet.
Thus, certain clauses of Article 15 curtail pluralism and participation thereby consequently weakening the very foundation for a strong democratic tradition. 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.
For now, there are not many options. Horse-trading will continue. Indeed, the National Law Review Taskforce recently suggested amending the Election Act to bar parties from trading candidates after the primary election. It also recommended amending section 209 (C) of the Election Act 2008 to disallow parties to replace their candidates after the primary election. However, this can only come into effect if the new Parliament chooses to amend the Election Act.
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, 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.