Bhutan will go for National Assembly election in a few months.
The National Council election was completed on April 20 this year. The newly elected members of council has already assumed office. However, the excitement of partisanship, controversy, rivalry among people of different political parties is only visible in National Assembly election as the National council is apolitical by law. National Assembly on the other hand is a powerful house as it forms the government and directly represents the people. The National Assembly election of 2013 was alleged to have been rigged in favour of People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the then opposition party, and this makes the forthcoming election even interesting.
In the 2013, there were allegations of postal ballot tempering, bribery, involvement of His Majesty Secretariat, intervention by the interim government, manipulation of armed forces and student votes and local government officials’ involvement in political campaign. The bigger influence of 2013 election was the Indian Government withdrawal of four subsidies, on LPG, kerosene oil, Chukha power tariff and the excise duty refund. This Indian action had a telling impact on Bhutan election. During campaign trail, discussions on foreign policy in regard to China and Bhutan-India friendship were in full heated centrestage. The then Prime Minister Mr. Jigme Y Thinley had met Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao on June 21, 2012, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The subsequent extensive coverage on the meet of the two state heads by Indian media during Bhutanese elections, further aggravated the situation and caused polarization. The Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) bagged 32 seats in primary elections and stunningly a month later, lost to the PDP that had won only 12 seats in primary elections.
Four political parties vying for election
Just as in the 2013 elections, four political parties will go for primary elections.
1.)The Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT) did not manage to garner 10 percent of total electorate votes in 2013 and therefore meant the lack of state funding in this election. The DCT wisely dissolved the party in 2018. The then disqualified party, Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party(BKP) is now allowed to participate the election with other parties like DPT, PDP and Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT).
All political parties have similar ideology. All parties want to promote Gross National Happiness and welfare of the people. Thus, all parties have resorted into building cult like figures around party presidents to garner votes. The DPT victory of 2008 election was attributed to Jigme Y Thinley’s charismatic leadership that rivalled the monarch himself. The DNT in 2013 election lost its credibility when the president, vice–president and senior leaders en-mass joined the PDP for General election has revamped itself by electing, Dr. Lotey Tshering as a president of the Party. Dr. Lotey Tshering had lost the 2013 election in the primary round. In 2017 at the National Day celebrations, the King awarded Druk Thuksey (Heart Son of Bhutan), highest civilian award to Dr. Lotey Tshering validating him as a Pelden Dukpa (a true nationalist). Can a Dr. Lotey sway the public of a party image that had failed to keep hold of its leadership and alleged as an extended hand of PDP?
2)The BKP on the other hand is taking a cue from DNT. Mr. Sonam Tobgay, former president of the party has roped in as president, Dasho Neten Zangmo, also a recipient of Druk Thuksey and former Chief of Anti- Corruption Commission bringing with her the image of incorruptibility of the party. As did DNT in 2013, by appointing Aum Dorji Choden, 1st female president of a political party in order to woo woman voters who are in the majority in Bhutan. Mr. Sonam Tobgay himself is known to be an ambitious man who is willing to change to the winning party if his party proves ineligible to participate in the general election. He harbors hopes on becoming Minister for Trade and Industry. In addition, the Chief political advisor to BKP is a former Mongar Dzongdag Mr. Lhakpa Dorji. On October 23, 1997, Mr. Lhakpa Dorji , the then Monger Dzongda, shot dead Gomchen Karma from Dramtse in cold blood at Mongar Kori la during peaceful demonstration spearheaded by Druk National Congress. He is denied Security Clearance Certificate and thereby ineligible to participate in elections. If a known murderer is the Chief Political advisor to BKP, people should judge where the party’s principals and ethos lie.
3)The People’s Democratic Party, ruling party has started to shake off anti-incumbency by replacing 12 sitting MPs. The PDP had closely observed the recent National Council election where only 5 incumbents out of 14 were re-elected. The party has inducted several senior bureaucrats in its party fold to influence voters, to return to power again. The PDP government’s handling of Doklam issues and Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal (BBIN) will also play significantly on voter minds. Both issues reflect the country’s sovereignty and national security. The country endured palpable uneasiness in 2017 when India and China had 73 days military stand-off at Doklam, tri-junction between China-India and Bhutanese border near Sikkim. Bhutan withdrew from Indian backed sub-region connectivity accord of Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal (BBIN) motor vehicles agreement in 2017 causing a bump in India’s master plan.
4)The DPT, opposition party, also lost some of its credibility in the aftermath of the previous election. The DPT were so distraught at the loss that it even threatened to dissolve the party and recalled its 15 winning candidates from the National Assembly lest their presence gives credence to the winning Party. Moreover, the first elected Prime Minister Jigme Y Thinley resigned from the National assembly seat and as DPT president. This ungracious behavior on the part of Jigme Y Thinley, left the country’s opposition party bereft of strong leadership. However, DPT government (2008-2013) tenure fulfilled many of their party pledges in socio-economic activities that immensely benefited the general public. Will this sway the public in their favour?
The Final say
What will this year’s National Assembly election debate around? Domestic issue and other socio-economic issues pledged in their respective party manifesto? Will India and China foreign policy debate figure once again? This time around as well, Doklam stand off and BBIN issues are there for the taking. Besides solely concentrating on their party’s manifesto, will the parties share the burden on matters of national security and national interest with the King? The successive election debate has not mentioned whatsoever on Bhutanese refugee issue. Will the fate of 6500 remaining Bhutanese refugees in Nepal lies with the new government?
Bhutan and India celebrates 2018 as golden jubilee of the establishment of formal diplomatic ties between the two neighbours. The Indian Prime Minister’s willingness to visit Bhutan later this year to mark this epic year between the two countries but only after the formation of the new government. India has sent clear a message across all political parties in the country that India will support whosoever comes to power. India does not want the repeat of 2013. The PDP had projected itself as pro-India party then. India will not risk breeding anti-India sentiments in Bhutan by siding with any political parties in Bhutan. India wants to show she enjoys excellent cordial relationship with all Bhutanese political parties. Interestingly, this years general election debate is conducted under ECB template. The BBS anchor will not be allowed to question the candidates directly.
Social media will have significant bearing on the outcome of elections. Wechat, Facebook and Twitter has penetrated into Bhutanese society more than in 2013. In fact, Wechat has penetrated deeper into rural than in urban. The simple hold and talk feature has made it very easy for illiterate rural people. However the layman has no inkling to authenticate the shared information, news or videos. Fake information and news about candidates or parties will definitely feature in these mediums.
It is to be seen how far democracy has taken root in the last ten year journey.
Submitted by Druk National Congress