Towards Functional Rule
Successful conclusion of the second local government elections in Bhutan demonstrates its commitment to strengthening democracy.
Held for the second time in Bhutan’s political history, Local Government (LG) Elections concluded in November last year.
In 2007, Bhutan marked the end of a century-old monarchy and became a democratic state. After a year, the country enacted its first national constitution, which instituted a two-tier governance structure based on national and local bodies. In 2011, Bhutan elected its first local government, which has now been replaced by newly-elected local bodies.
In 2016, the Election Commission of Bhutan ( ECB) organised second-Local government elections in three stages. The first round was held in the third-level administrative division of Bhutan in January 2016. The second phase was held in June in the western part of the country, while the third and fourth phases were completed in July and November, 2016.
“To strengthen democracy, it is necessary to empower the lower bodies in the government and it is
very creditable for Bhutan to have conducted it very successfully,” says Dr. S. Chandrasekharan, the founderdirector of the India-based South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG).
As per the conditions set by the ECB, all aspiring candidates have to pass a ‘functional literacy and possession of skills test’ to qualify for the LG elections, paving the way for a young, educated leadership to emerge and play their part for development and growth of the country.
Chogyal Dago Rigdzin, Bhutan’s Chief Election Commissioner, terms the recent LG elections as historic. He says, “Despite some problems, the elections went smoothly with active participation of the electorate.”
According to the Election Commission of Bhutan, a total of 1,423 candidates have been elected in the these elections.
“Out of the total, 432 had previously held elective posts in local governments. The elections were called for a total of 1,477 constituencies. However, there were no elections held in 41 chiwogs (electoral precincts) due to lack of candidates,” admits Chogyal Dago Rigdzin, Chief Election Commissioner.
For a nascent democracy like Bhutan, the successful conclusion of its second local government elections is being termed as a milestone in many ways. First of all, the smallest country in the Himalayan region has demonstrated its commitment to strengthening democracy despite its lack of experience and incapacity to adapt to a totally a new system of governance. Secondly, it reaffirms its long-term goal of achieving gender equality, as the recent LG elections witnessed significant progress in terms of women’s participation.
Third, a young political leadership has been surfacing out of the local government elections being held at regular intervals, a good omen for a country that took almost a century to get rid of an absolute monarchy, where the king had used his discretionary powers to decide about public interest without as much as referring to public opinion.
“With regard to Local government elections held in Bhutan, one should compare it with what is happening in Nepal, where for sixteen years no elections to the village or regional levels have been conducted and the politicians are still fighting over the demarcation of individual units,” says Dr. S. Chandrasekharan.
Though most of people in Bhutan still consider democracy as an enforced ideology which has its origins in the west, the young lot of the country see the potential in a steadily evolving democratic rule that has something to offer, e.g. protection of human rights, gender mainstreaming, freedom of expression, equal employment and learning opportunities offered to both men and women, as well as a sense of obligation conferred on governing institutions for them to act in the public interest.
Despite a token representation in the running of state affairs, the active participation of youth in the electoral and political process suggests a bigger change in how the young and educated want to make their presence felt. It shows today’s Bhutanese youth are eager to defy the status quo and wish to seize any opportunity that helps them make a dent in the long-established monarchical system, which is still defiant in allowing democraticallyelected public representatives to work independently.
Says Tashi Pem, a Bhutanese writer, “Within the framework of the Local Government (LG) Act of Bhutan 2009, local governments in the country are responsible for providing public services, promoting socio-economic development, framing and enforcing rules consistent with national laws and promoting culture and protecting cultural sites among others.”
However, some people believe local bodies representatives in Bhutan have not been empowered enough to be able to contribute to state matters, as the country’s unshakable constitutional monarchy has yet to share its administrative power with public representatives elected at both national and local levels. Still going strong, the king has the last say in running the government and he exercises his power whenever it comes to deciding the fate of the nation, ridiculing the concept of parliamentary supremacy.
“With respect to important aspects such as financing, staffing, and policy-making, there are noteworthy limitations to the scope for decisionmaking by local governments, and in effect, by citizens. For example, local governments can raise revenues through taxes within nationally defined scope and scale, some fines and user fees, etc. However, these revenues make up, on average, less than one percent of overall expenditures,” says Tashi Pem.
Amidst these power imbalances, both the national parliament and local government bodies in Bhutan find themselves at the mercy of a powerful kingship, but the consistency in its political journey stands as a good omen for the country where democracy is gradually finding its ground in spite of apparent challenges and constitutional restrictions.
A local leader once explained the role of local governments: “If a person stands outside and shouts, the blue sky may or may not hear him. Local governments help to bring the blue sky closer to the people.”
This corresponds with the ‘bridge between the people and the Centre’ imagery that local government leaders often evoke when speaking of their roles. What is striking in these imageries is that local governments do not seem to perceive themselves as decisionmakers, but as links to those who do, says Tashi Pem.