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Bhutan: Gearing up for National Elections

Paper No. 6413 .      Dated 25-Aug-2018

By Dr. S.Chandrasekharan

The Second National Assembly of Bhutan was dissolved in the afternoon of 1st August 2018 as mandated by Article 19 of Bhutan Constitution.

By a Royal Order, an interim government under the leadership of the Chief Justice has been formed with nine Advisers.  In distributing the portfolios, the Chief Justice- now called Chief Adviser has retained the two important  portfolios namely Home and Foreign Affairs.

Persons chosen as Advisers have uniformly a clean record and are known to be competent.  The Interim Government has a very limited mandate and is not supposed to make any major change.  Even tours within the country are to be kept to the minimum.

Primary elections to the National Assembly are to be held within one month and the final round of elections will have to be held within ninety days and cannot be exceeded.  The King will issue a formal notification on the election period and the polling dates.  It is expected that the final round of polling will be towards end October.

Judging from the elections held in mid-April to the National Council in a very efficient and orderly manner, it is expected that the Assembly elections will also be held peacefully and there should be a seamless transfer to the next elected Government.  To this, both Gyalpo 5 and Prime Minister Tobgay should take the credit.

Bhutan could take pride in moving smoothly towards democracy as compared to what we see in Maldives in this region where democracy was introduced at the same time. 

In Maldives, a tyrant is likely to contest the elections after all other potential contestants have either been jailed or forced to go into exile.

Preparations for elections in Bhutan have been going on for quite some time now.  The parties had already given a tentative list of candidates two months ago and the final list has also been given to the Bhutan Election Commission. Some senior officials of good standing and experience serving the Government were sounded as early as six months ago. 

The practice of officials joining the party on the eve of elections, particularly to the Ruling party though technically correct has justifiably come in for criticism from other parties.  The particular case was on the issue of the Cabinet Secretary Kinzang Wangdi who is the top most bureaucrat to resign and join the PDP to contest the elections.

The opposition leader Dr. Pema Gyantsho raised this question of “conflict of interest” in the Assembly on June 23rd and criticized the ruling party for identifying and appointing civil servants as candidates while they are still in the civil service.

I would agree with the view of opposition leader who said- “If senior bureaucrats are roped into politics as candidates of the ruling party, the apolitical nature of the Civil Service would be at risk.”  But the opposition party is equally guilty as they have also roped in other officials!

Another issue that has become a controversy is the provision given to candidates who lose in the primary elections to join one of the two groups elected for the final round and contest the elections.  The National Law Review Task Force has recommended the discontinuance of this practice and may be ,will be done not in the next National Elections but later.

Four Political Parties will be contesting the elections for all the 47 seats.  These are

  1. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP)
  2.   Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT)
  3.   Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP)
  4.   Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT)

The BKP is facing the elections for the first time. 

The Election Commission disqualified another political party DGT (Druk Gaki Tsogpa) from becoming  a registered political party on three major grounds- 1.  Lack of candidates for two Dzhongkags  2.  The party’s ideology lacked envisioning of substantive task on national development.  3.  Absence of  candidates of public standing  with demonstrated experience of leading a government or an establishment.

Surely, the Election Commission has exceeded its brief on the last two grounds and the High Court though upheld the order,  ruled that the Commission had no right to consider extraneous issues like  State policy or the competence of candidates.

The Election Commission has made some changes in the Election Format.  The number of polling stations has been increased and it has also provided better locations for Postal facilitation booths.  Mobile Polling booths ( a needed innovation) are also being considered  to get to the remote rural areas and to facilitate disabled people to vote.  Funds for elections for individuals are also being raised.

The candidates of all the four parties appear to be equally competent and good and all have equal chances.  However, the Ruling Party PDP despite its anti-incumbency factor appears to have an edge. 

Though the manifestos for elections are not finalized, the slogans and priorities indicated by the parties show that there is not much difference among the parties.

The DNT’s slogan is “Narrowing the Gap”- as the income gap has widened and to provide equal opportunities for all and develop and implement policies that are favourable to Lower and Middle- Income groups.

The BKP is for a self-reliant Bhutan which is their concern and responsibility.  They are for equal opportunities, value harmony in society, remove all sorts of nepotism and discrimination in the Civil Service.  The last one is intriguing as there has not been many complaints on this issue.

The DPT’s priority is for Sovereignty, Security and Self Sufficiency.  There is a hint in this that it is against India for whatever reasons they may have as sovereignty has never been a question that needed to be addressed.

The Ruling Party PDP has highlighted three achievements, namely 1. Serving the nation with the vision of His Majesty 2.  Sound and Stable economy and 3.  Good foreign relations, particularly with the neighbours India and China.

Two issues stand out in the coming elections.

 The Ruling party is contesting the elections on a good record.   Prime Minister Tobgay in his own low profile and style has achieved what is possible though some of the targets he wanted particularly in the employment and hydro power sectors were not met.  The target of 10,000 Megawatt by 2020 is out of question and even half of that may not be possible.  The delay in the execution of hydro power projects- Punatsangchu and Mangdechu will  bring down the GDP from the expected target of 10 percent. For this India is also partly responsible.

The second aspect is that relations with India is not an issue as yet though there is a hint in the DPT’s priorities.  The issue of sovereignty figures again in an opinion piece of the Editor of Bhutanese on the coming elections.

In the run up to the elections and even otherwise, there is need for India and Indian officials to take into account Bhutan’s sensitivity towards its sovereignty.  The recent action of Dantak officials in erecting road markers in Indian tri colours was not only indiscreet but downright stupid.  The smaller the country, the greater will be its sensitivity on matters of sovereignty and security.

There is need for India to respond more generously on the financial needs of Bhutan.  For example, despite three meetings between the officials of the two countries, the power tariff on the Mongdechu project could not be agreed to.  Prime Minister Tobgay had to personally visit Delhi and raise this issue.  India was generous in funding the 11th plan and is likely to do so with the 12th plan. 

I have said before and would reiterate that India should post the best of its officials to the neighbouring countries.  This is not only in respect of foreign service personnel but also to other deputationists who come in some form or other..  Good relations with the neighbouring countries and the economic well being of these countries should receive priorities in India's foreign policy strategy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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