Post-election Bhutan lacks strong multiparty democracy
29 May 2008 9:58 pm
Bhutan’s first foray into democratic elections may have demonstrated its commitment to move away from an absolute monarchy, but it is unlikely to be an entirely functional multiparty democracy.
A lack of strong opposition, the under-representation of women candidates, the exclusion of ethnic Nepalis from the election process, and the widespread lack of understanding of democratic principles have undermined the country’s political transition.
Bhutan first democratic elections took place on 24 March, 2008, with nearly 40 international observers looking on at the county's final step to convert to a multiparty democracy. Nearly 80 percent of 318,465 registered voters exercised their franchise. But as for multiparty democracy, the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (Druk Phuensum Tshogpa), headed by former Prime Minister Jigme Y Thinley and closely allied with the king, won 44 of 47 constituencies. The electoral commission says the voting was peaceful and orderly, with only minor problems.
Bhutan’s path to democracy began after King Jigme Singye Wangchuck handed the throne to his son, the current king, in December 2006 and ordered an end to absolute monarchy. It was the latest development of the country’s willingness to open up to the world. The access to television and the internet was only allowed in 1999, and the King made a priority of preserving the country’s culture by imposing the wearing of traditional work clothes and strictly controlling tourism. The transition to democracy wasn’t met with much enthusiasm from the people. They wondered why they needed to give up palace rule, and feared mismanagement and corruption, which they had witnessed in neighbouring South-Asian countries. The voters’ turnout was surprisingly large for a population that said they preferred to remain under the rule of the revered king.
With such a weak opposition, these elections do not suggest a successful multiparty democracy. Also, both competing parties largely follow the King’s view. The DPT, which won a landslide, is perhaps more loyal to the monarchy than the People’s Democratic Party, which will be the opposition, with the three seats allotted. Both parties had offered similar promises, analysts said. Foremost among them was to continue the King's blueprint for “Gross National Happiness” – to maintain development, protect the environment, preserve the culture and ensure good government. The current King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is 28 years old, will remain as head of state and will likely retain much influence. However the National Assembly will be able to remove him with a two-thirds majority.
Yet the main criticism of the elections was the barring from the polls of the ethnic Nepalis. To create a homogeneous culture and retain its unique identity, Bhutan stripped minority ethnic Nepalis of Bhutanese citizenship and forced them into exile. More than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, expelled from Bhutan, have been warehoused in seven overcrowded camps in southeastern Nepal since 1991. Many have been trying, unsuccessfully, to return to Bhutan. The tens of thousands of other ethnic Nepalis still in Bhutan were banned from casting their vote. Many people were also arrested or not allowed to take part in the election due to their links with the people living in exile. A large number were denied voter ID and were regarded as anti-national because of their links with those in exile. At last, the candidates were barred from speaking about matters of security, citizenship (meaning refugees) or the royal family.
As well, the representation of women in the elections was very weak. Only 10 women candidates out of the total 94 contested for the 47-member Bhutan National Assembly. With more than 95 percent of women illiterate in Bhutan and around the same number who work in agricultural farming, most of the Bhutanese women aren’t even aware of their rights. Women, who represent some 49 percent of the Bhutanese population, have the least access to gainful employment. Some 0.5 percent of women are employed in the civil service and less than 0.5 percent are engaged in business. Yet, the government, despite ratifying the International Convent on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, has failed to protect and promote women’s rights. However, the women voters’ turnout was greater than the male voters, 161,169 women compared with 157,296 men, which illustrates the women’s will to engage in the political life.
Prior to the elections, two mock polls were conducted in April and May 2007 in order to introduce Bhutan’s isolated citizens to the concept of parliamentary democracy and the practicalities of a voting process, including the use of electronic voting machines. Organisations such as the UN Mission in Bhutan have undertaken further civic-education training programmes. However, the election process and its outcome lead us to think that civic education among the people hasn’t been thorough. Bhutanese felt worried before the elections and deemed it “insensible to put the country in the hands of the people when we have such a good monarch”. Such a statement illustrates the lack of education and understanding of democratic principles. In comparison with neighboring Nepal, where the elections resulted from a long popular struggle, the democracy in Bhutan was introduced by the King himself. The King had to order the establishment of democracy in the country, and convinced its people of its benefits.
At different levels, the democracy in Bhutan will not be a functioning one. For a start, democracy needs a strong opposition; the three seats gained by the People’s Democratic Party hardly constitute a significant opposition. Furthermore, the democracy lacks representativeness. The exclusion of ethnic Nepalis from the country, and from the polls, is manifestly unjust. Finally, the election candidates were unable to deal with the preoccupant matters for the country, such as the 100,000 refugees in camps in Nepal – a long-standing issue that needs to be solved.