A Hi­malayan Feat

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Jave­ria Shakil Jave­ria Shakil is As­sis­tant Edi­tor at SouthAsia. She writes on is­sues of po­lit­i­cal and so­cial in­ter­est.

Ato­tal of four po­lit­i­cal par­ties – the Bhutan Peace and Pros­per­ity Party (BPPP), the Peo­ple's Demo­cratic Party (PDP), Druk Nym­rub Tshogpa and Druk Chir­wang Tshogpa – con­tested the re­cently held elec­tions in Bhutan. There were five par­ties ini­tially. One could not con­test as the Elec­tion Com­mis­sion of Bhutan dis­qual­i­fied it.

Ac­cord­ing to Bhutanese law, a party con­test­ing the elec­tion must field can­di­dates in all 47 con­stituen­cies and each can­di­date must have a univer­sity de­gree. The fifth party, the Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party, was dis­qual­i­fied as it did not put up a can­di­date with a univer­sity de­gree in just one con­stituency.

Now comes the in­ter­est­ing part. Each of the re­main­ing four par­ties sent a letter to the Elec­tion Com­mis­sion, re­quest­ing it to re­view its de­ci­sion and let the BKNP par­tic­i­pate in the polls. Up­hold­ing the law, the Com­mis­sion turned the re­quest down.

Hav­ing re­cently wit­nessed the first ever tran­si­tion of power from one demo­cratic gov­ern­ment to another in May 2013, the peo­ple of Pak­istan may find the afore-men­tioned in­ci­dent hard to be­lieve. In fact, such dis­plays of unity and broth­er­hood are rare even in es­tab­lished democ­ra­cies of the world. How­ever, the pe­cu­liar­ity of the elec­toral ex­er­cise in Bhutan was not limited to just one in­ci­dent. The his­tory of elec­tions there, as well as the coun­try it­self, is re­plete with oneof-a-kind in­ci­dents.

This was the sec­ond elec­tion in Bhutan ever since its 2008 tran­si­tion from an ab­so­lute monar­chy to a con­sti­tu­tional setup. Un­like other mon­archs, who let go of power fol­low­ing mass protests, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth King of Bhutan, re­lin­quished his pow­ers with­out any pub­lic pres­sure and de­spite be­ing a pop­u­lar ruler.

Wangchuck is also cred­ited with

in­tro­duc­ing rad­i­cal po­lit­i­cal and so­cial re­forms that in­cluded de­vo­lu­tion of most of his ad­min­is­tra­tive pow­ers to the Coun­cil of Min­is­ters and al­low­ing for the King’s im­peach­ment by the Na­tional As­sem­bly.

His most sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion on the so­cial front was the in­tro­duc­tion of television and the in­ter­net in 1999, mak­ing Bhutan one of the last coun­tries to have television.

The first par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in Bhutan were held in 2008 when King Wangchuck an­nounced that he was ab­di­cat­ing the throne in fa­vor of his son. This tiny South Asian coun­try, with a pop­u­la­tion of just over 700,000 – out of which 381,790 were reg­is­tered vot­ers – was di­vided into 47 con­stituen­cies. The elec­tion was held in two rounds. In the first round, polling was con­ducted in 20 dis­tricts of the coun­try and the two par­ties that claimed most votes tran­si­tioned to the next round to com­pete for the 47 Na­tional As­sem­bly seats. Of the four par­ties that con­tested the 2008 elec­tions, the BPPP won and formed the gov­ern­ment.

The Bhutanese must be the only peo­ple in the world to have mock elec­tions at a na­tional level. When the first elec­tions were an­nounced in Bhutan, the rulers thought it fit to con­duct a mock elec­toral ex­er­cise to make peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the process. Four fic­ti­tious par­ties – Blue Party, Green Party, Red Party and Yel­low Party – were set up. Even though the con­test­ing can­di­dates were mostly high-school stu­dents, the na­tion took the ex­er­cise so se­ri­ously that UN and In­dian ob­servers were in­vited to mon­i­tor it.

In real elec­tions, the voter turnout was 80 per­cent with the BPPP win­ning 44 seats while the only other party con­test­ing elec­tions – the Peo­ple's Demo­cratic Party – man­aged to win just three seats. Gen­eral elec­tions were also held in Pak­istan in the same year.

As much as the re­sult of the first elec­tions in Bhutan was shock­ing, the re­sults of the sec­ond elec­tions also brought sur­prises. The PDP, which re­mained in the op­po­si­tion for the five years, won 32 of the 47 na­tional as­sem­bly seats. Tsh­er­ing Tob­gay, the for­mer op­po­si­tion leader, was sworn in as the new prime min­is­ter.

The main rea­son for the BPPP’s down­fall is said to be al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion lev­eled against some gov­ern­ment func­tionar­ies, in­clud­ing the home min­is­ter and the speaker of the par­lia­ment that turned pub­lic opin­ion against the party. But it would be un­just not to give the PDP the credit it de­serves. It ran a wellor­ga­nized elec­tion cam­paign and ad­dressed is­sues that struck a chord with the masses such as the for­ma­tion of lo­cal gov­ern­ments.

Bhutan’s re­la­tions with In­dia, and the two lead­ing par­ties’ stance on the mat­ter, was also a cru­cial fac­tor that shaped pub­lic opin­ion. Dur­ing his term, for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Jigmi Y. Thin­ley had taken steps on the for­eign pol­icy front as well. He tried to im­prove the coun­try’s ties with China though this irked In­dia no end. As a re­sult, In­dia with­drew its sub­si­dies on the kerosene oil and cook­ing gas sup­plied to Bhutan. This led to a sub­stan­tial hike in the prices of these com­modi­ties and had the masses fum­ing at the BPPP gov­ern­ment. These de­ci­sions hurt the peo­ple of Bhutan and did not do any good to the coun­try on the diplo­matic front ei­ther.

How­ever, look­ing at the broader pic­ture, democ­racy did bring some pos­i­tive changes in the lives of the peo­ple of Bhutan. Their stan­dard of liv­ing im­proved sig­nif­i­cantly. Ac­cord­ing to World Bank data, the coun­try’s gross na­tional in­come (GNI) in­creased from $950 in 2003 to $2420 in 2012. In 2003, only 84.6 per­cent of Bhutan’s pop­u­la­tion had ac­cess to an im­proved wa­ter source (a house­hold con­nec­tion, pub­lic stand­pipe, bore­hole, pro­tected well or spring and rain­wa­ter col­lec­tion). By 2011, the fig­ure had in­creased to 95.8 per­cent. The coun­try’s road net­work and ba­sic health fa­cil­i­ties also im­proved con­sid­er­ably.

Democ­racy, how­ever, also brought in its wake charges of cor­rup­tion and wrong­do­ing by politi­cians – a phe­nom­e­non hith­erto un­heard of in the coun­try. Dis­play­ing a deep be­lief in the con­cept of ac­count­abil­ity, the Bhutanese peo­ple ex­pressed their dis­plea­sure with their gov­ern­ment by vot­ing it out of power in the elec­tions.

Now that a new gov­ern­ment is in place in Bhutan, how it han­dles the coun­try’s re­la­tions with its two dif­fi­cult neigh­bors – In­dia and China, be­tween whom this Hi­malayan king­dom is sand­wiched – will be a fas­ci­nat­ing study for those in­ter­ested in re­gional pol­i­tics.

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