To­wards Func­tional Rule

Suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion of the sec­ond lo­cal gov­ern­ment elec­tions in Bhutan demon­strates its com­mit­ment to strength­en­ing democ­racy.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Faizan Us­mani

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.

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