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.

Southasia - - REGION BHUTAN - By Asna Ali The writer is a busi­ness grad­u­ate. She has an in­ter­est in po­lit­i­cal and so­cial is­sues.

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!

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