Smallest opposition in world is back to rule in Bhutan

By Indra Adhikari

From almost a dead party, the once smallest opposition in world, Bhutan’s People’s Democracy Party (PDP) stuns by winning over whelming majority in the country’s second parliamentary elections on July 13 and prepares to form the next government.

Within the last 90 days, Bhutan experienced three consecutive elections – for National Council (upper house) and National Assembly (lower house). Through these elections, Bhutan, one of the youngest democracies in the world, is struggling to stabilise its government and political system.

National Council elections drew less attention of the voters and the international community while National Assembly, because of its nature that remained at the centre of political discourses and debates, drew much debates and controversies. The elections, second in the series of Bhutan’s democratic exercise, have not just elected ruling and opposition parties but posed myriad of challenges for them in stabilising the system. The parties are struggling to operate freely under electoral laws which, while claiming to ensure fairness, stifle inclusive democracy and make it difficult to participate at all.

In order to better understand these pressures, it is necessary to look back over the short history of democracy in Bhutan. King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk took over the reins in December 2006 when his father King Jigme Singye Wangchuk announced abdication. This move heralded a new era for Bhutan – the establishment of substantive democracy – under the guidance of its new and popular monarch.

Shortly after his enthronement, King Khesar made clear his desire to see democratic changes in the country’s political system though the political activists in exile criticise this to be inadequate. Political parties, once regarded as a wholesale threat to peace and stability, came into existence. Bhutan’s first general election, held in 2008, paved the way for the Bhutanese people to experience the world’s most popular form of government. Of the two parties in the field, Druk Phunsum Tshogpa (DPT) won 45 of 47 seats in the lower house, making the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) the world’s smallest opposition. 25-member upper house is apolitical. Additionally, the constitution promulgated in July 2008 formally changed the absolute monarchy in Bhutan to a constitutional one.

Voice for change
The uprising in 1990 and 1997-98 was certainly a demand for a political change. Partly influenced by the political changes sweeping across the region, Bhutanese in southern districts saw the need for making king as constitutional head while delegating other powers to the elected representatives of the people.

There were heaps of similar demands put forward by a number of groups – including political parties and human rights groups that came up in exile. The Bhutan People’s Party (BPP), first to put such demands, resolved that Bhutan needs a constitutional monarch and multi-party political system. Other groups made demands on similar lines.

The government had, then, responded retrospectively. Those calling for changes were branded anti-nationals and terrorists and their activities as treason against king, country and people. Almost 18 years later, King Jigme Singye, who then opposed presence of political parties in the country, felt the need of such system. In one of his interviews with Indian journalist, King Wanghuck had mentioned he would abdicate his throne in favour of crown prince if he failed to resolve the southern Bhutan problem. He stood to his words to abdicate finally. Many feel resettlement of Bhutanese refugees to western countries has resolved the southern Bhutan problem. It has not.

The Bhutan royal family felt the needs for more political changes seeing the discontent rising from eastern district as well under the leadership of Rongthong Kunley Dorji in 1997-98. Had there been no expulsion of Dorji, formation of Druk National Congress (DNC) and eastern uprising, political changes in Bhutan would have been slower though certain.

The biggest democracy in the world and the largest donor, India played a negative role in flourishing democratic culture in Bhutan. Unlike in Nepal’s case, India extended no support for the pro-democratic forces in Bhutan. The fair reason could be the position maintained by the monarchs. Bhutanese monarch remained ever loyal to India while Nepalese monarch made efforts to remain equidistant to India and China. All efforts Bhutanese refugees made failed at the cost of India, not Bhutan.

No matter what factors stimulated for political changes in Bhutan, it has finally come. The second parliamentary elections saw decrease in voter turnout compared to the first, partly because of the season.

Unexpected results
Results in both the parliamentary elections were unexpected. DPT has lost its 30 seats to PDP this year – shrinking from 45 to 15. Against 67 percent win in 2008, DPT secured only 45 percent of the total votes this year. The party did not perform better than primary round where two other parties were eliminated. Constitutionally, only two parties can represent in the National Assembly.

Most foreign media and national media expected DPT to return to power but in smaller size. There were very few who believed PDP will form the new government and if it did it would have ‘just’ the majority.

Many former ministers have lost this year’s battle. Veterans from southern districts like Thakur Singh Powdyal lost to Tek Subba who was never a public figure before. Similarly former deputy speaker of the National Assembly Yankhu Tshering Sherpa lost to PDP general secretary Yogesh Tamang.

Some national media term it as ‘anti-incumbent’ factor. It was observed in the National Council elections as well. Most former members of the council of the house had lost the race.

DPT dominated east and politically conscious districts like Thimphu and Paro. PDP has swept the southern and western Bhutan.

Nothing has been mentioned in laws and constitution about political coalition. There are confusions whether it is allowed or restricted but election commission circulations mention any form of political coalition is illegal. Political coalition was extensively debated during this year’s election campaign.

DPT continuously alleged PDP of having a loose coalition. DPT felt threat when 7 members of the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) party, including its president, deserted their own party to join PDP after the primary round. In few instances in eastern districts, the PDP leaders publicly mentioned they had coalition with DNT and other party Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT). One member of the DCT joined DPT in eastern district. Both of these parties were eliminated in primary round.

Political pundits were not sure where would the DNT and DCT votes would go in final round. The group entry of DNT leaders into PDP obviously played psychological role in dragging DNT and DCT votes for PDP.

Election Commission of Bhutan though said it can disqualify candidates and party if any proof of coalition was found.

It’s a matter of time whether the two parties eliminated in the primary round had partnered with PDP in the final round. Their position in many policy matters and government decisions in future will clarify had the coalition really existed.

Food for campaign
The Bhutanese electorate is something of a mixed bag. The dynamics of voters’ demography is changing swiftly. Young population is exceeding that of old ones. The politically-conscious youths form the major chunk of the voter population in the country. Young people, perhaps psychologically buoyed by the king’s own age (Khesar is currently 33), have begun to desire younger elected leadership too. According to Home Ministry documents, there were 112,600 young voters – defined as those between the ages of 18 and 25 – of whom some 70,000 exercised their voting rights for the first time.

PDP campaigned extensively in favour of youths. It promised 100 percent youth employment – the promised unlikely to be met. And results reflect party with relatively young candidates have won the race.

In southern districts, citizenship and census were the other contentious issues for political campaign. Some of the residents I talked over phone claimed the new ruling party is more liberal to their demands to relax census issues and issue more citizenship. Though PDP is more strict with regard to repatriation of expelled citizens, a journalist based in Thimphu said he don’t care what happens with refugee issue as long as the new party addresses the concerns and demands of those still living in Bhutan. He said, we are about us, not them.

The call for greater reforms in 1990, and the subsequent expulsion of those demanding change, has resulted in a growing number of Bhutanese accepting resettlement abroad in the US, Australia, Canada and Western Europe.

The first elected government announced that Bhutan would take back ‘eligible’ citizens unwilling to be resettled abroad. The Thinley government appeared to believe that repatriating a small number of those currently displaced to refugee camps in Nepal could help dilute the discontent in southern Bhutan. PDP had objected this plan for repatriation, arguing that this might open the doors to ‘terrorists’.

The biggest headache for DPT was the state of the economy.

Despite denials publicly, the former DPT government failed to tackle with the twin Rupee and Credit Crisis that started in late 2011. It had immense impact on the national economy and businesses. Businesses were barely surviving without credits for investment and for import from India. The struggling private sector, high youth unemployment, and a growing trade deficit with high levels of debt only aggravated the situation further.

The Economic Development Policy (EDP) and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) unveiled by the Thinley government failed to produce any substantive results. While the leaders focused on their GNH campaign across the globe, they failed to look at the farmers at home who were facing the shortage of irrigation and human-wildlife conflict control facilities.

Media delved into uncovering several corruption instances where government ministers were involved in such as Gyelpozhing, Chang Ugyen case, Denchi, Bhutan Lottery, Trowa Theater, City Bus, Education City, and Mining. Media was target for bringing those issues into public notice and steps such as banning government advertisement were taken as revenge.

In most nepotism was at boiling point. The Thinley government’s threat to take action against Anti-Corruption Commission for filing case against its leaders further degraded the party’s morality. Two of the DPT top leaders have been sentenced for 1-2 years in jail.

Bad decisions
The Jigmi Yeshey Thinley (JYT) government was shattered by several of its bad decisions that had bad impression on Bhutanese voters. Cases like Pedestrian Day or the draconian Tobacco Act badly backfired the ruling party.

JYT government made failed attempt to get a temporary seat in the UNSC. Despite establishing diplomatic relations with over 50 countries, Bhutan lost the race disgracefully. While India was not happy with the way JYT pushed the importance of establishing diplomatic relations, the former government ignorantly by-passed many Indian interests. Though known that India is a bad big brother in the region, it does not mean Bhutan can bypass India’s interests of playing role of adviser in foreign affairs, which it had been doing until recently.

Bhutan for the first time made feeble attempt to play China card. Initially JYT denied he met with Chinese Premier Wen in Rio and later claimed it was just a hi-hello among heads of the government. India noted the issue with seriousness and extra caution. This was against the statement given by fourth monarch Jigme Singye in 2005 when he visited India that Bhutan will not maintain any diplomatic relations with permanent members of the UNSC.

But, New Delhi believes, Bhutan circumvented this position by appointing a Briton to act as UK’s honorary consul in its capital and subsequently gave him Bhutanese citizenship.

JYT particularly played stunts with his success in Gross National Happiness (GNH) campaign. UN resolution on happiness was partly his personal success yet it heightened the presence of Bhutan as a nation state in international forums. The western intellectuals and political leaders applaud the concept with standing ovation. Ironically, there was a very low presence of Indian political and intellectual circle interested to his orations. Obviously, this was an indication of silent displeasure expressed by Indian side.

Indo-Bhutan relations
On eve of elections, JYT claimed PDP tainted Bhutan-India relations. This was another excuse from the JYT team to hide the bad relations they built with India over the past five years. JYT’s nine visits to India during his term as first elected prime minister did little to make India believe Bhutan will remain ever loyal. This is not fair but Bhutan cannot afford to surpass the reality.

During the JYT term as first democratically elected prime minister, Bhutan established diplomatic relations with 53 countries without taking into confidence the South Bloc (India Foreign Ministry).

Reality hit home with withdrawal of LPG and Kerosene subsidy, along with notices that subsidies on Chukha and Excise Duty would also be withdrawn. The DPT responded with an ostrich like approach- denying the obvious and instead putting the blame on local conspiracy theories that further damaged DPT’s credibility.

The PDP team only in few instances talked about Bhutan-India relations and maintained that it will go extra miles to remain loyal to India as before. Considering the low profile of its leaders, little exposure on political relation at personal level, international standing and expertise, India appears confident the new government will not push forward to continue making new friends without consulting India. New Delhi apparently wanted Thimphu to take geo-political realities into consideration while expanding its diplomacy across the globe.

Rules of the game
This year’s election encountered better democratic exercise though the presence of more parties in the field makes little difference in the way the Bhutanese parliament and government work. Those eliminated in primary round will eventually die in next five years’ time in absence of political activism.

Not a single party mentioned anything about the 1990 and 1997 discontentment. This means, the political leadership in Bhutan is perfectly positioning itself not to accept the activism as voice of change. There aren’t any laws from parties speaking about the events but self-conceived fears constrict them of making any comments. The democratic changes and open politics will not mature unless leadership accept to look the history through alternative lenses.

The power shift is unlikely to lift restriction put on those charged for political activism in the past. Charges of acting against the state or the royal family, or evidence of support for or participation in the pro-democratic movements in 1990 and 1997-8 will continue to hover the national politics. Many political leaders arrested for demanding political change in those years remain in jail to this day. Druk National Congress in 2009 had published the names of 15 inmates arrested from 1997-98 demonstrations. It still remains unknown who many of those arrested in 1990 are in jail now. The political change and democracy is just the veil for them. At its core, the situation remains as it was yesterday until the fourth king exercises power from the back of the curtain.

Bhutan is waiting for game changers who can bring twist here.

The Royal road
The monarchy exercises considerable influence over every major political decision. The constitution provides for the monarchy to remain an active political voice in governance, and in the appointment of parliamentarians to the upper house of parliament, security chiefs and constitutional office holders. The monarchy has also adopted a strategy to win the hearts of the general public, with King Khesar walking to villages in Bhutan’s remote districts in order to listen to the grievances of the people, help settle land ownership disputes and provide counsel in times of natural disaster – such as the 2009 earthquake in eastern Bhutan. He also reached the Haa and Wangdue Phodrang fire disasters faster than the local fire service.

Despite Bhutan’s move towards a democracy with a constitutional monarch, political actors are seeking a greater role for the monarchy. Erstwhile National Council members sought royal directives on whether they should resign in order to re-contest seats. MPs seek royal advice on whether certain parties should get state funding, and local government leaders supplant the national government, preferring instead to receive the king’s blessings for their plans. In some cases where Bhutan’s constitution has been called into question, politicians have approached the king for his interpretation, bypassing the Supreme Court. Moreover, political parties know that they must speak with affection and respect towards the monarchy in order to secure public support.

Thus, king indirectly reins on politics. Any political parties, not speaking in support of the monarchy absolutely cannot win public sympathy.

When vital factors of the democracy – political parties and election processes– are so weak, we cannot expect Bhutanese democracy to grow strong in short run. Weak presence of the political parties and election commission in public debate and activities to engage general people in democratic exercise will delay the process of strengthen democratic governance in Bhutan. To keep the legacy it received through promotion of GNH, Bhutan needs prudent and submissive leadership to ensure a vibrant and potent democratic culture. The new leadership with large bags of promises will be testes against time to keep up with the spirit of changes people are looking forward. The new leadership will also be tested on whether it remains loyal to palace or to the people who voted it to the power.

The leadership will be tested on how good and credible pro-people governing system they establish. Their fairness and robust calibre of giving a just democracy will be evaluated on how they examine and address the critical questions of Bhutanese political and social history.

Bhutanese democracy is running along these myriad challenges. Changes are picking up gradually despite efforts by the ruling party and the palace to exert their control.

If culture developed by JYT government rules the new power, Bhutan’s democratic transition takes years to get matured. Bhutan must learn from regional experiences to let the system mature at the earliest possible and concretise stability to avoid instability and wobbly politics.

The more approachable Tshering Tobgay is expected to look into wider spectrum on strengthening democracy, addressing the needs of the people, be at home with people on need and prove it was not a dead party for the last five years. People voted for change and are looking forward to see change.

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