After the Elections
Democracy is a new phenomenon in Bhutan, which was a monarchy not long ago. Perhaps a greater sense of direction is needed for the political parties to make a real difference.
Tiny, isolated and landlocked, a small country caught between two titans, Bhutan is a monarchy and the only country in the world that, for many years, measured the Gross National Happiness of its citizens.
However, there is more to the country than meets the eye. Closer scrutiny reveals the very unique set of problems Bhutan faces, thanks to its geographical location, size and, most of all, a society that is slowly transforming and modernizing itself. No longer a traditional monarchy, Bhutan started its steady march towards democracy under the rule of former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck who gradually gave up some of his authority to the national assembly. The first parliamentary elections were held in 2008 and were won by the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (DPT). Right on schedule, the second parliamentary elections were held earlier this year and power was handed over without a hitch to the opposition, the People's Democratic Party (PDP).
So far so good. Bhutan looks like it is well on its way to becoming a successful democracy but not everyone agrees to this sanguine point of view. Certain Bhutanese newspapers have pointed out the dwindling presence of political parties, post-election, as a sign that all is not well with this fledgling democratic state.
A lack of funds is one of the more obvious reasons for political parties
Due to a lack of understanding both on the part of the public and the politicians there is confusion regarding what role political parties can play in Bhutanese society.
being unable to maintain a nationwide presence. To have an existence more tangible than a set of political ideas, parties need members, sympathizers and donors.
For long-established parties in countries such as the United States, UK or even Pakistan this is not much of a problem. Parties and their leaders are adequately recognized and there is no dearth of funds. But to exist on a firm footing in an infant democracy is a bit like playing a game in which no one is quite sure of the rules.
To solve the funds problem, the previous government suggested that political parties should receive state funding to keep their operations going. The idea does have some merit as a flourishing and well-established party system will help the democratic process. On the other hand, doubts have rightly been cast on the ruling capability of parties that are not even able to sustain themselves.
Even though a lack of resources is seen as the key issue plaguing Bhutan’s political parties, it is merely a symptom of a much wider problem that has a lot to do with the internalization of the democratic process.
In countries that have a long -established tradition of democratically elected local and central governing bodies, political discourse does not end after elections. The selection of candidates is just one step in a self-sustaining circular process. The existence of multiple points of view and continuous debate regarding various administrative issues is seen as a matter of course. The victory of one political party over another does not signify that its opinions are the only valid ones. Those in government heed the words and respect the opinions of the opposition and even those of smaller fringe groups.
In such an environment, finding something to do post-elections is not a problem for the losing parties. They have enough presence and clout to continue propagating their ideas both at home and abroad. There is attention from the media and from the international community as well which keeps a party alive in the memories of their voters.
Bhutan’s political landscape consists of only a few key players at the moment. The winning party from the first election has become the opposition this time around and vice versa. A few new players emerged in the elections but they were knocked out of the race early without any substantial gains in terms of solidifying their presence.
Following the elections, the new parties have all but disappeared and even the ruling party and opposition are finding it hard to keep their grip on the electorate.
This is because the sense of political will and purpose engendered by an election is always somewhat lost afterwards. There is a lingering feeling of “now what?” For politicians and party workers who have no real foothold or community standing, apart from the importance they gained during the campaign process, this is very hard to come to terms with.
Due to a lack of understanding both on the part of the public and the politicians there is confusion regarding what role political parties can play in Bhutanese society. Looking outwards to the rest of the world, there is a sense that they are supposed to contribute to social discourse and to also have some say in foreign and economic policy.
A severe lack of direction has resulted in Bhutanese political parties having a sense of ‘going adrift’ postelection. Who makes the rules? That is the question on everyone’s mind.
This obviously does not point to the unpopularity of democracy in the country, but rather to a lack of awareness of what it entails. The democratic process consists of much more than holding elections every few years.
There are obviously sections of Bhutanese society that would have preferred a continuation of the monarchy in its old form. For people used to being governed by a single sovereign, the idea of such a wide-ranging choice is a little disconcerting. Although democracy has been adopted by the country in a slow and systematic manner, it still needs plenty of time and a few more election cycles to become stronger and self-sufficient.
There is a need for the larger political parties and the media to step up and introduce the concepts of multiple opinion, free-ranging debate and effective integration of leaders from different ends of the ideological spectrum into the policymaking process. Only then will democracy be truly accepted and partaken by the general public. In the meantime, party members should reach for their pockets for funds. Nobody said democracy was easy!