The elections in Bhutan that began in spring and are due to culminate in a run-off this week show that democracy has taken root in the country
This is election season in Bhutan. On April 23, elections were completed to the National Council (the Upper House of Parliament). On May 31, another election was conducted, this time for the first of two phases to elect the National Assembly (the Lower House). The first phase (or primary round) — to which I was invited by the Chief Election Commissioner of Bhutan as an observer — was a preselection process as it were, to elect two out of the four contesting parties in the fray. Of a total population of 7,50,000, 55.27 per cent of Bhutan’s 3,80,099 eligible voters braved inclement weather to cast their votes; the results were announced that night. The two parties that cleared the hurdle were the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and the main Opposition, the People’s Democratic Party of Bhutan (PDP), which have now put up one candidate each per constituency, for a run-off, final round of polling scheduled for July 13. By this elaborate two-phase constitutional process, there can only ever be two parties. Coalitions can have no place in Bhutan’s parliamentary governance.
Arriving in Thimphu two days prior to the May 31 election of the political parties, I visited several polling stations to observe pre-poll preparations. Importantly, this included a preliminary scrutiny of postal ballots, separating the valid from the invalid ones. As many as 18 per cent of the total votes were cast through postal ballots alone. The Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) had put in tremendous effort to ensure that personnel on election duty were enabled to vote at their respective district headquarters. The ECB preceded this with concerted efforts at voter education conducted in what were quaintly called postal ballot clinics.
Inspite of a drizzle in some parts and a downpour in others, people, all, interestingly, in their national dress, braved the difficult mountainous terrain to stand in orderly lines, holding aloft umbrellas. I asked an elderly bent woman in a queue at Paro whether she had voted in Bhutan’s first-ever election in 2008. “No,” she said, “I did not understand anything about elections then.” When her turn came, the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) puzzled her for a bit, but she soon waved aside any assistance and pressed the button of her choice in secrecy. I was somewhat more surprised to meet young, first-time voters. They told me that they had been engaging in discussions on Twitter and Facebook. However, only about 27.6 per cent of voters below 30 years of age came out to vote in this election. Reasons for young voter apathy are usually the same everywhere, but an additional difficulty in Bhutan was that their votes could only be cast in their native villages and these were hard to reach from the cities where they were studying or employed.
People have remarked to me that we cannot compare elections in Bhutan to India, because of Bhutan’s much smaller size. This is not a valid argument. When electoral management bodies handle elections, neither the country’s size nor its total electorate are the principal issues at hand. In India, too, we have small mountainous States that pose similar problems of logistics, inclement weather and communication difficulties. What matters everywhere is the integrity of the process and the fidelity of the electoral rolls. Facing conditions similar to our problems in northeast India and parts of Jammu and Kashmir, ECB officials trekked in rain, slush, through deep forests and mountainous trails often carrying EVMs and other equipment on their backs, to reach all 850 polling stations spread over 47 constituencies in 20 districts. In other parts of Bhutan, improved roads, power and mobile connectivity have made the conduct of elections easier than in 2008. The total effort resulted in the declaration of results on the night of May 31, giving the erstwhile ruling party, the DPT 44.52 per cent of the votes, with the erstwhile Opposition PDP party (which bagged only two of the 47 parliamentary seats in 2008), gaining 32.53 per cent of the vote share.
An absolute monarchy for the better part of a century, the Third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, moved hesitantly towards democratisation in 1953, setting up a 130-member National Assembly. Almost half a century later, his son, the Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, made a much more dramatic and decisive move by putting into place a written Constitution (2001), setting up an Election Commission, allowing the formation of political parties, creating a 25-member National Council (Upper House), and a National Assembly (Parliament) of 47 members. The country would be run by a Prime Minister in Cabinet, with a two-party Parliament ensuring a real Opposition. The Fourth King thereby created a constitutional monarchy akin somewhat to that in the U.K. By this process he chose to transform an absolute monarchy into a parliamentary democracy. In a world where democracies often enough spawn dictatorships, (with rigged elections or warped constitutional amendments), to remain in power, his decision was voluntary. He once again attracted the world’s attention when he abdicated his throne at the age of 50 in favour of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, installing the 28-year-old as the Fifth King in 2008.
In 2006, Bhutan sought the Election Commission of India’s assistance to make its transition to democracy. The two Commissions signed a memorandum of understanding. We helped with training, observation visits to various elections to State assemblies, and shared our detailed handbook and manuals. We exchanged delegations. However, it must be said that Bhutan studied all the world’s leading democratic models, incorporating what suited their size and traditions. It decided that only graduates would be eligible to contest elections, which led initially to an outcry in a country of widespread illiteracy. Anyone with a criminal record was barred from contesting. A two-party system was built in, which would avoid the problems of coalition compulsions. The ECB has a Chief Election Commissioner and two Commissioners. Dasho Kunzang Wangdi, a product of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, was earlier the country’s Auditor General before being appointed by the King to head the Election Commission. He is assisted by his colleagues, Dasho Chogyal Rigdzin, and a lady, Aum Deki Pema. They had the formidable task of setting up the commission from scratch. This was particularly difficult (and not a little piquant) when the average person could not understand why the Fourth King wanted to change the system of governance in the first place; they were perfectly content with his rule! This was borne out when we assisted the ECB with a mock election prior to the real one, just to get people used to the process, including the use of the EVMs that India had supplied. Since there were no political parties at the time, four mock parties were set up, each assigned one of four primary colours. Was it any surprise then that the Yellow Party won hands down, for yellow is the colour associated with the King!
Today, campaigning is on. Some degree of political churning is inevitable. Since elections are State-funded, there is no whiff of electoral fraud or exceeding statutory financial limits that now bedevils our own scene. A recent land scandal was quickly nipped in the bud, when jail sentences were handed out to two erstwhile ministers by the courts and constitutionally barred from contesting this election. Now, it remains to be seen if the final tally of voter participation exceeds the 79.4 per cent that voted in 2008, and whether, too, the number of parliamentarians in government and the Opposition will be more evenly matched this time around.
(Navin Chawla is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India.)