Bhutan’s Elections & Their Importance regarding India’s Foreign Policy

The people of Bhutan will vote in the primary round of the third parliamentary elections on 15th September. For the young democracy, it is an important landmark, giving them an opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to a representative system of governance. Bhutanese democracy and electoral process are unique in several ways. The Constitution declares Bhutan to be a sovereign Kingdom, where the form of government is that of a Democratic Constitutional Monarchy.

The Parliament – Chi Tshog has two Houses: National Council (Gyelyong Tshogde) and National Assembly (Tshogdu), both with a five-year term. The National Council has 25 members of which 20 are elected while five are nominated by the King; candidates contest the Council elections as independents and not as party nominees. However, elections to the National Assembly which has 47 members are held on party lines.

The first elections to the Parliament were held in 2008 and the second in 2013. The Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) has, over the last decade, put in place clear cut guidelines, rules and regulations for conducting elections, as per Constitutional directives and the Election Act, 2008. While Article 15 of the Constitution details political parties, Article 16 enumerates public campaign financing. National Assembly elections are held first in a primary round where registered political parties contest on party symbols. The two parties that get the highest number of votes in the primary nominate candidates for the 47 seats in the General Elections which are held after nearly one month.

Interestingly, the Constitution, under Article 3, specifically enjoins upon religious institutions and personalities to remain away from and above politics; similarly, the Election Act, 2008 bars such personalities from joining a political party or participating in the electoral process. They also cannot take part in the election campaign or show any electoral preference, thereby ensuring a secular political system. While elections to the National Council took place in April, the National Assembly elections were set in motion when the House was dissolved on 1st August. Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay resigned on 9th September after which an Interim Government, headed by the Chief Justice as Chief Advisor, took over. The ECB announced that the Primary Round will be held on 15th September, followed by the General Elections on 18th October.

Four parties have successfully registered with the ECB:
  1. People’s Democratic Party (PDP), led by Tobgay
  2. Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), of Dr Pema Gyamtsho
  3. Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), of Dr Lotay Tshering
  4. Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP), led by Dasho Neten Zangmo.

The DPT which won the 2008 elections formed the Government with Jigme Thinley as the Prime Minister. It, however, lost the 2013 elections to PDP led by Tshering Tobgay. Every citizen of the age of 18 and above is eligible to vote in the elections. The ECB provides for common forums for parties to address the electorate at a specified venue for electioneering. Later, two public debates are organized in which the presidents of the parties or their nominees take part. The first public debate is based more on party ideology and the second on election manifestos. These processes have been completed in the run up to the forthcoming elections. The party manifestos and public debates have placed before the electorate what each entity has envisioned for the mountain Kingdom. PDP has stressed how effectively the Tobgay government managed the economy in the last five years and hope to capitalize on the Prime Minister’s low key style of functioning, focusing on quality service delivery. DPT insists that they were more successful in handling the economy; party president Pema Gyamtsho, however, admits that they might have made a few mistakes while in power, have learned from them, and are ready to shoulder responsibilities. BKP and DNT too have their concerns on the economic situation.

Essentially, all parties have identified more or less the same areas in their manifestos for focused attention. Farmers and agricultural workers are the most substantial group among the voters; private sector employees constitute another significant segment. As such, these sectors find special mention in all manifestos. Besides, parties have emphasized the importance of agriculture, employment generation, private sector development, health care, affordable housing, rural development, power generation, better roads, highways and transport, improved connectivity, and increased use of Information Communication Technology. Tourism, education, civil service reforms, women and child development, ease of doing business, social security, hydropower and mining are other segments that find a place in the manifestos. Of these, the parties have flagged external trade, 24/7 drinking water availability, cottage, small and medium enterprises, renewable energy, construction, and manufacturing and trade for expeditious action. They have, while prescribing separate roadmaps, assured that appropriate legislation, schemes and policies will be rolled out to achieve these goals. Interestingly, parties have stressed the need for an enlightened media policy, especially for social media.

The ECB has strict guidelines, with all media outlets having to submit an undertaking on responsible reporting and to ensure a level playing field. Social media rules and regulations were issued this year, emphasizing accountability and responsibility. The election advertising regulations, media coverage of elections rules and regulations and code of conduct for media persons strive to put a check on misuse of mass media during election times. At the Bhutan Broadcasting Service’s ‘Constituency Dialogues,’ parties underscored the need to counter the spread of fake news in social media. DPT’s Pema Gyamtsho was of the view that countering fake news from fake accounts was not the solution and agencies concerned must curb such practices. Earlier this week, the Central Election Dispute Settlement Board directed a former National Council Chairman to remove a Facebook post with immediate effect after the DPT lodged a complaint that his post affected the ‘level playing field’ of contesting parties. Before issuing the direction, the Board gave opportunities to all concerned to make submissions so that it could take the correct course of action.

As on 1st July, the electoral roll has 438,663 voters of which 224,550 are women as against 214,113 men; there were 381,790 voters in 2103 and 318,000 in 2008. Voting percentage in the 2008 elections was almost 80 whereas it came down to 66 in 2013. This year, there are 133,795 registered postal ballot voters, about 30% of the total electorate. Facilitation Booths and mobile postal ballot have been provided for smooth postal balloting.

The political parties have recognized the significance of these voters since they are among the more educated electorate in a country which has prescribed graduation degree as a qualification for candidates. While PDP’s Tobgay felt that these voters would favor his party, considering how efficiently they ran the government, other party leaders hoped that these voters would be better informed as to how the outgoing government failed to deliver on their promises.

The postal votes are now sealed, with the balloting having been held on 7th, 8th and 9th September. The primary round will be held on 15th September and results will be out the next day. The two parties that get the highest number of votes will then nominate their candidates for General Elections to be held on 18th October. Parties will be wary of electoral behavior during this period considering what happened in 2013.

In the primary where 55.27 per cent electorate voted, Prime Minister Thinley’s DPT had won 44.52 per cent approval with PDP coming second with 32.53 per cent; however, in the General Elections that followed, where 66 per cent electorate cast their votes, PDP won 32 seats and DPT came second with 15 seats. For India, Bhutanese elections have a special significance, considering the very close relations that New Delhi shares with Thimphu, especially in the context of increased Chinese involvement and the Doklam stand-off.

Some of the Bhutanese concerns include access and connectivity, their currency Ngultrum being pegged to the Rupee, share of trade to total trade, the Rupee Reserve, etc., besides the China factor. In the 2013 elections, India’s decision to cut the subsidy for cooking gas and kerosene had led to a rise in fuel and food prices which adversely affected the DPT government; this move at a crucial time was seen as a reprisal for the then Prime Minister’s reported proximity to the Chinese leadership. As such, Bhutan’s parties are circumspect; Prime Minister Tobgay had developed a very good rapport with Indian leaders, especially with a change of government in New Delhi. The PDP manifesto describes India as “our closest neighbour and friend”, and says it will ensure further engagement with New Delhi. It talks of striving to foster good relations with neighbouring West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Assam and Bihar. It will also explore possibilities of creating infrastructural linkages with Indian railway networks to boost export. The DPT manifesto says it remains committed to maintaining and furthering excellent bilateral relations by deepening economic ties and carrying forward the mutually beneficial cooperation.

Some doubts, though, have been expressed if DPT’s vision of “sovereignty, security and self-sufficiency” is intended as a thinly veiled reference to Indian interests. The BKP manifesto promises to strengthen friendship and cooperation with India “based on mutual trust, mutual respect and mutual benefit, being mindful of each other’s aspirations, interests and sensitivities.” The DNT manifesto has not made any foreign policy references. But in either case, India will be eagerly looking at the outcome of the third parliamentary elections in Bhutan, a country that has been a positive constant in its foreign policy framework.

New Trends

There are certain new trends in Bhutanese politics which need to be understood well to interpret its domestic and foreign policies in future.

First, unlike in the previous two elections, a new untried party won the elections. The ruling party was rejected by the people in the primary round.

Second, while foreign policy was one of the major issues in the 2013 elections, it had lost its salience in the 2018 elections. Almost all the parties assured the electorate they would either improve or continue a good relationship with India.

Third, the voters’ participation was on the rise and it was quite high in this two-phase elections. Most importantly, women voters’ participation rate was higher than that of male voters.

Four, unlike in the 2013 elections, there was no discussion about external influence in the results.

Five, the party symbols did not play any determining role and people voted for candidates, leadership and internal issues.

Six, there were reports about increase in postal ballot voters compared to the previous elections.

Seven, the highest number of women candidates were elected to the national assembly this time round. All women candidates of the DNT won the elections.

Challenges

The new government could face challenges in implementing its popular programs as promised in the party manifesto due to shortage of resources and lack of experienced Parliamentarians. The DNT’s election manifesto was a mix of populist and ambitious developmental promises. It has pledged to implement at least 25 of its promises in the first 120 days. Most importantly, the DNT has promised to “narrow the gap” between rich and poor in the next five years, which is a herculean task. This policy of the DNT could force it in a developmental direction which can indirectly challenge the GNH index, initiated by former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Fourth King of Bhutan.

Another challenge could be to win the trust of both China and India to resolve its long-standing border disputes with China. Besides, the new government could face problems in tackling growing regionalism over language and developmental issues, natural disasters and sources of budget funding.

Despite being one of the fastest growing economies in the region, Bhutan struggles to complete major hydro projects and other infrastructure projects like internal road connectivity, public transportation system, airports, schools and hospitals. Although India contributes 68 percent of the total external assistance, it would be a testing time for the new government to generate funds from other sources, given the smaller market and its strong, almost non-negotiable policy on environmental protection.

Bhutan’s expectations from India

Since the DNT is a new political party and it did not have much focus on Bhutan’s foreign policy in its manifesto, there was speculation in the media that the new government in Thimphu could follow a Nepal-like rebalancing policy between India and China.

Surprisingly, ending that speculation, the PM in waiting, Lotaty Tshering, in a media interview has already stated that “Our [DNT] views are very clear on foreign policy and we believe that it cannot change every five years. Our King (Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck) will be the guiding force on matters of foreign policy… And on India, we believe that Bhutan-India relationship is non-negotiable.”

While the new government has articulated its policy towards India and the latter has welcomed the electoral results, India now needs to wait and watch the new government’s approach towards it. Ever since the diplomatic relationship was established in 1968 between Bhutan and India, it has emerged as one of the most celebrated success stories of India’s neighbourhood policy in South Asia, characterized by mutual trust and understanding.

Given the perceived role of India in determining its domestic politics, it was widely believed in Bhutan that India factor may actively or passively influence the 2018-parliamentary elections. However, during and after the elections, there was no noise whatsoever from Bhutan about India playing any role in the elections.

On the contrary, in some quarters there were discussions about possible Chinese backing of some political forces in Bhutan. This is a positive sign for India-Bhutan relations even if the fear of India meddling in internal politics of Bhutan may continue at the grassroots level in some form or other.

India will need to establish linkages with all political forces in Bhutan to bring development and prosperity to the people in the Himalayan country and cement ties between the two countries further.

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