A Himalayan Feat
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.