Po­lite but firm

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - (Cour­tesy: The Econ­o­mist)

Anti-in­cum­bency grips Bhutan Vot­ers de­liver a bolt from the blue in the land of the thun­der dragon

IT MUST be the most gen­teel can­vass­ing op­er­a­tion in the world. Lily Wangchuk, who is run­ning for a seat in the Na­tional As­sem­bly, chats with a shaven-headed monk in the shade of a weep­ing wil­low, she in a silk kira (tra­di­tional dress for Bhutanese women), he in ma­roon robes. A passer-by stops to laud her ex­per­tise. A shop­keeper de­cries the coarse­ness of democ­racy—it is only ten years since the king sur­ren­dered ab­so­lute author­ity—be­fore in­sist­ing that she stay for a cup of tea.

Yet the vot­ers of Bhutan, a Hi­malayan coun­try of 800,000 sand­wiched be­tween In­dia and China, are ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing harsh ver­dicts. The sec­ond round of vot­ing takes place on Oc­to­ber 18th. In the first, last month, vot­ers se­lected two par­ties to nom­i­nate can­di­dates for the sec­ond round. To gen­eral as­ton­ish­ment (polling is not per­mit­ted), the rul­ing party was elim­i­nated. An up­start out­fit, the Druk Nyam­rup Tshogpa (DNT), took first place and Ms Wangchuk’s rel­a­tively es­tab­lished op­po­si­tion party, Druk Phuen­sum Tshogpa (DPT), came a close sec­ond.

Many Bhutanese har­bour mixed feel­ings about the tran­si­tion to con­stitu- tional democ­racy. Echo­ing the shop­keeper, a grandee de­clares that, given the choice, the peo­ple would “take back monar­chy in a heart­beat”. The sur­prise was that so many of the 290,000 vot­ers were keen to kick out the in­cum­bent gov­ern­ment. Its eco­nomic record, at least, had been im­pres­sive: in its five years in of­fice an­nual GDP growth had ac­cel­er­ated from 2% to 7%.

Dif­fer­ences be­tween the par­ties’ plat­forms were sub­tle at best. For­eign pol­icy is not men­tioned ex­plic­itly, yet it may have played a sig­nif­i­cant role. Bhutanese re­mem­ber the fate of two other Hi­malayan king­doms, Ti­bet and Sikkim, which were swal­lowed up by China and In­dia re­spec­tively. Last year In­dian and Chi­nese troops had a tense con­fronta­tion over a dis­puted patch of ter­ri­tory where China, In­dia and Bhutan all meet. In­dia has near im­pe­rial power in the king­dom, and throws its weight about in Bhutanese pol­i­tics. Af­ter the prime min­is­ter of the pre­vi­ous DPT gov­ern­ment met his Chi­nese coun­ter­part on the side­lines of a con­fer­ence in Brazil in 2012, In­dia grew chilly. Six days be­fore the sub­se­quent elec­tion, it abruptly ended sub­sidised sales of cook­ing gas to the king­dom. The pain was in­stant, and the DPT was booted out.

This year both the DPT and the DNT touched on ex­ter­nal mat­ters in a round­about way in their cam­paigns, by com­plain­ing about for­eign debts for dam-build­ing, de­pen­dence on im­ported fuel and the gov­ern­ment’s fail­ure to at­tract a Ja­panese em­bassy—all mat­ters that hint at In­dia’s over­bear­ing in­flu­ence. “Sovereignty, se­cu­rity, self-suf­fi­ciency” was the DPT’s dog-whis­tle slo­gan. A young busi­ness­man wishes his coun­try were more open to China. He sells cater­pil­lar fun­gus, which is used as an aphro­disiac there. He be­lieves that Chi­nese tourists bring more money to the king­dom than those of all other na­tion­al­i­ties put to­gether.

Ms Wangchuk, how­ever, is most in­ter­ested in so­cial is­sues, in par­tic­u­lar the treat­ment of women. One of her aides, a 27-yearold, ar­gues that youth un­em­ploy­ment is to blame for de­pres­sion, sui­cide and drug use, and could be re­duced by a more en­gaged and rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment. As he holds forth, some older vot­ers lis­ten qui­etly—too po­lite to dis­agree.

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