For a nation that lays great store by its Gross National Happiness (GNH), also the guiding principle of its government, the process of electing a new government was evidently a solemn business. Voter turnout was 66.07 per cent — much more than the 55 per cent seen in the primaries held on May 31.
The first general elections took place in 2008 after the Bhutanese monarch stepped down to enable the formation of a democratic government.
In a population of a little over seven lakhs, the country has 3,81,790 voters who decided the fate of 94 candidates in 47 constituencies of the National Assembly or the Lower House on Saturday. In 2008 the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) won 45 seats while the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had won only 2. In Bhutan’s tri-cameral Parliament, the National council with 25 members is the Upper House and the King is the guardian of the Constitution. After the primary round of elections held in May, two parties, the DPT and the PDP, qualified to contest in the final round. Though the 2008 election was contested with the DPT advocating GNH as the goal to aspire for, the slogan, which in subsequent years also became Bhutan’s calling card in international forums, was surprisingly eclipsed during the campaign by a debate over the possibility of India engineering the election results by withdrawing subsidies on LPG and petrol and corruption in the ruling party.
In the first week of July, Dasho Karma Ura, an adviser in the 90-day interim government formed by the King, said in an article in a state-controlled newspaper, Kuensel, that India has withdrawn the subsidy on LPG, petrol, power from the Chukha hydel plant and excise duty refund.
The average cost of a cylinder of gas went up from Nu. 489 to Nu. 1156 and the government calculated that it will make the poverty rate go up from 12 per cent to 13.3 per cent. The PDP alleged that the DPT had jeopardised friendship with India by making overtures to China, a charge hotly denied by Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley.
But, the development coming as it did days before the polls, led to speculation that India was attempting to nip any pro-China moves by orchestrating the removal of the ruling DPT. Veteran Bhutanese journalist Gopilal Acharya writing in Kuensel said, “These subsidy cuts are tantamount to the Indian government taking us hostage at this critical juncture of our country’s political life. I sincerely hope India has not started playing Nepal games in Bhutan.”
Corruption woes also dogged the ruling DPT when its Home Minister Minjue Dorji and Speaker Jigme Shultrim were disqualified from contesting elections by the high court because of their conviction on corruption charges.
The DPT did, however, brandish statistics to show that it has brought down poverty from 23 per cent to 12 per cent during its rule, achieved mainly by building a vast network of rural roads.
Many, though, feel that the elusive GNH that the DPT won the previous election on, needs some tangible features. “A Maruti Alto car for instance” says Tandin, a private employee at a polling booth. “If I am able to buy one, it will complete my GNH”, he observes.
This article has been corrected for an editing error.