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All the Kings men

Print edition : Apr 25, 2008 T+T-
Jigme Singhye Wangchuck (right) and his son, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. A July 2006 photograph.-AFP

Jigme Singhye Wangchuck (right) and his son, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. A July 2006 photograph.-AFP

Bhutan becomes the newest democracy as its unwilling voters elect the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa to power with an overwhelming majority.

SOUTH ASIA is passing through an election season: Pakistans February 18 parliamentary elections were followed by Bhutans National Assembly elections on March 24, and now Nepal is all set to hold its first ever elections to the Constituent Assembly on April 10. All these exercises are a manifestation of the strong upsurge of sentiment for democracy and against the erstwhile autocratic governance in these countries; except that the Bhutanese elections were held in a unique political context. Unlike the situation in Nepal and Pakistan, there was no grassroots upsurge in interest in political change and the establishment of representative institutions. The Bhutanese people were happy to be governed by their traditional monarchy, whose criteria for development were defined within the parameters of the Gross National Happiness felt and enjoyed, not only materially but also spiritually, by the people.

Bhutans call for democracy was a top-down sermon by the King himself, Jigme Singhye Wangchuk, much against the unwillingness of and initial resistance by the people. While, in his neighbourhood, the Nepal King was hell-bent on going to any length to cling to power and the military regimes in Pakistan and Myanmar were most unwilling to abandon autocracy, the King of Bhutan decided in 2005 to institute democracy by handing over executive power to elected representatives. He got a new Constitution drafted accordingly, and went around his country discussing the draft Constitution and pleading with his people to learn to rule themselves through their elected representatives. The new Constitution makes it mandatory for future Kings of Bhutan to retire at the age of 65. The King can also be removed by a two-thirds vote in Parliament. King Jigme Singhye Wangchuk himself abdicated in favour of his son Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, who is in his twenties, in 2006. Political parties were reintroduced in April 2007 by lifting a 50-year-old ban on them and elections to the Lower House of Parliament were scheduled for March 2008.

The Bhutan elections are unique not only because they were ordered by the King but also because, unlike in other South Asian countries, educational qualification was made an important factor. Under the newly framed election laws, no one can contest parliamentary elections without having a graduate degree. Bhutan has a small graduate community of just 3,000 persons. This is also indicative of the fact that in a country where the rate of literacy is still around 42 per cent, the graduate community may mostly come from the upper and elite sections of society.

Elections were also constrained as the contesting parties were screened before they were given permission to participate. The Druk Peoples Unity Party (DPUP) was disqualified after scrutiny for what was described as lack of credible leadership. It was alleged that more than 75 per cent of the party members were school dropouts. The elimination of the third party from the race reduced the two-stage electoral process into a direct contest. The Election Commission also disqualified a candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) who tried to play up the problem of Bhutanis of Nepali origin. This was done to send out a firm message that there was no room in Bhutan for communal and sectarian politics. It was a clear decision to keep the Nepali issue out of the political process.

The new electoral laws also bar a person from contesting if any of his/her parents was a migrant Bhutanese. The parents of contestants have to be Bhutan-born. The electoral process was also kept free of religious issues. Monks were not allowed to vote. No wonder, there were no sensitive or contentious issues. In fact, there was not much to distinguish between the two major contenders, the PDP and the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), or the Bhutan Peace Party. While the DPT promised a compact government, equal and just treatment to all citizens and a high standard for political conduct, the PDP tried to lure voters by offering a salary rise and promising infrastructure development, including the construction of an airport in eastern Bhutan.

It was a keenly contested election. As many as 74.4 per cent of the more than 318,000 registered voters cast their votes. Even the King appealed to voters to exercise the franchise. People walked long distances to cast their votes. Some expatriate Bhutanese also returned home to participate in the elections. The Election Commission gave one lakh Bhutanese rupees, in addition to essential election material, to each candidate towards poll expenses. A candidate could also spend one lakh Bhutanese rupees of his/her own to boost his/her electoral prospects. The Commission also organised a television debate between the leaders of the contending parties. The DPT levelled corruption charges against the PDP, saying that the latter was bribing voters, but these were stoutly countered by the PDP.

The election results upset all calculations. Analysts in Bhutan and India had expected a close fight, with a difference of not more than five to 10 seats between the winner and the loser. Even the DPT, which emerged victorious with an overwhelming majority, had not expected to win more than 30 of the 47 seats it contested. It won 45 seats. The PDP, which was routed, has asked for a re-poll or at least a serious investigation into the factors that caused such a landslide in favour of the DPT. This heavily lopsided outcome has been attributed to various factors.

Some observers have blamed the faulty mechanism or improper use of the voting machines. Others have given credit to the campaigning style of the DPT and the impressive articulation by its leader, Jigme Y. Thinley, in the debate as well as during the campaign. The DPT had five senior Ministers in its ranks and there was an impression that the party had the blessings of the King, although the PDP had a leadership related to the royal family. The active participation of senior civil servants in the DPTs electioneering confirmed this impression. Since the election was seen as a gift from the King, voters chose the party that was seen as the Kings party.

Bhutans top-down experiment in democracy, therefore, starts with an extremely weak opposition. The two elected PDP members have threatened to resign if the causes of their partys defeat are not investigated sincerely. In order to compensate for the weak opposition, the DPT leader and the Prime Minister-elect has promised accountable, corruption-free and transparent governance down to the constituency level. He assured the people that he would do everything to establish firm foundations for a great democracy under constitutional monarchy. We are all subjects of one King. And in this small country, we are all a family, he remarked.

While the international community has welcomed the democratic initiative of Bhutan, some criticism has come in for the neglect of Nepali refugees from Bhutan who have been languishing for years in Nepal and India. More than a 100,000 of the refugees were not included in the voters list and were not allowed to participate in the elections. Extremist elements, including members of the Bhutan Communist Party, which is closely affiliated to the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists), have infiltrated this section. They tried to disrupt the electoral process by exploding bombs in various parts of Bhutan since January and on the eve of the elections. The extremists are against the third-party solution of the refugee problem wherein the refugees are being absorbed in the United States and some European countries.

The ethnic issue, although kept carefully out of the electoral process, will need to be addressed seriously by the new democratic establishment. Nine Nepali-speaking candidates belonging to the DPT have been elected to Parliament, but this number is too small compared with the size of the ethnic Nepali population in Bhutan even after the disbursement of the Nepal-based refugees.

The new government will also confront a foreign policy challenge in the form of an assertive and sensitive China, in the context of the renewed Tibet issue and the impressive development of infrastructure in the Himalayas, with roads reaching the Bhutanese borders. The boundary question has yet to be settled between Bhutan and China. As for India, a stable, democratising, friendly and confident Bhutan is the best security asset in the turbulent Himalayas.

The writer is a Senior Visiting Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore.