The long election process in Bhutan has ended in the victory of the opposition People’s Democratic Party. The election, Bhutan’s second after it became a parliamentary democracy in 2008, was a two-stage process, in which two political parties were eliminated in the first round, leaving the remaining two to battle it out in the final round. While the results of stage 1, held in May, indicated that the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) was on a strong wicket, the opposition PDP won 32 of the 47 National Assembly seats in the run-off. A combination of factors led to the PDP victory, including the dynamism of its leader, Tshering Togbay, a former civil servant. The PDP’s focus on ‘Gross National Happiness’ — a concept that had caught the world’s imagination — as nothing more than an empty slogan also seems to have had considerable resonance. In the final few weeks though, India’s decision to end a subsidy to Bhutan for cooking gas and kerosene, sending up the prices of these two fuels, brought relations with India squarely into the election campaign. Despite New Delhi’s strenuous denials that the withdrawal was not aimed at influencing the election, the timing was certainly odd. That the state of Indian finances was so precarious that it could not shoulder the burden for a few more days was not lost in Bhutan. The previous DPT government’s overtures to China were quickly identified as the possible reason for the Indian action. This gave the PDP a handle to blame Prime Minister Jigme Thinley for mishandling relations with India, on which Bhutan is massively dependent for almost all its development, economic and security assistance.
It is difficult to determine how much this imbroglio actually affected the eventual outcome. Even if it played no part, New Delhi must desist from using its privileged position in Bhutan to play games of the sort it did with Nepal or risk alienating another neighbour. Already, DPT sympathisers are blaming New Delhi for the party’s defeat. Under the 2007 renegotiated India-Bhutan Treaty of Friendship, Thimphu’s foreign policy is its own. Ensuring it will not act against New Delhi’s strategic interests requires constructive diplomacy and an engagement with all political players, not interference. The India controversy was the only discordant note in an otherwise smooth election. The 66 per cent turnout in the run-off was much lower than the 79.4 per cent in 2008. But the full-throated campaign, the keenness with which it was followed by the public at large, the debates it generated in Bhutan’s print and social media, all showed that by and large, the Himalayan nation has settled in its new democratic groove.