Domestic issues rather than India and China likely to dominate Bhutanese elections

Domestic issues rather than India and China likely to dominate Bhutanese elections

Bhutan held elections to the Upper House of parliament called the National Council (NC) on April 20 this year. Elections to the Lower House, called the National Assembly (NA), are to be held by November.

Elections to the NC did not draw much attention because they were conducted on a non-party basis and also because the body is only 25 strong. But polls for the National Assembly would draw great attention on account of the fact that it is a 47 strong body elected on party basis.

The 2018 elections are the third in a row since Bhutan became a functioning democracy a decade ago.

So far, Bhutan’s elections have been fought on a mix of issues both local and external. Neighbor India is believed to have played a role at least in the 2013 NA elections. But in the coming polls, the Indian factor is expected to be less or less overt, on account of various factors.

The upsurge in the use of social media to disseminate ideas and political thought in the last few years is bound to be critical factor in shaping voter choice in the coming elections. The 2013 polls witnessed wide use of the social media, but the issues it focused on did not find resonance among the hoi polloi at that time. But it remains to be seen if things will be different five years down the line.

India Factor

The Bhutanese government of Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay was neutral during the painfully long military standoff between India and China over the disputed Doklam region in mid-2017. This was remarkable considering the fact that Doklam is in Bhutan and not India or China.

Reflecting the government’s somber mood, the official Bhutanese media was more or less silent on the issue though the country’s two giant neighbors were on the threshold of a 1962- type of war with grave consequences for Bhutan also.

Prime Minister Tobgay, who had come to power in 2013, showed great political acumen in dealing with the two superpowers at his country’s doorstep. But the Bhutanese social media was a different kettle of fish altogether, very active and very critical of India.

The social media went beyond the territorial issue of Doklam to highlight current and past controversies, thus presaging trouble for India in the days to come.

The Bhutanese blogger Sonam Tashi openly said in an on-line post, that there is “an unwritten no-go zone in Bhutanese politics and media” in regard to issues related to India.

Though the focus of Tashi’s post was on India and its economic dominance over Bhutan, what his post revealed was a new dimension in Bhutanese politics. Existing political taboos were beginning to be challenged by individuals in the public domain.

However, South Block’s Mandarins changed track before the situation got out of control in Bhutan, perhaps at the instance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had apparently decided to reverse the Manmohan Singh government’s aggressive posturing in the immediate past.

During the 2013 Bhutanese National Assembly (NA) elections, India stopped subsidies given to essential commodities, which in turn resulted in a rise in prices in Bhutan given that country’s heavy dependence on imports from India. The cost of living issue was among other issues, which made the then government led by Prime Minister Jigme Thinley of the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party, unpopular.

While the masses were wanting a change in government based on Thinley’s acts of omission and commission, the Bhutanese intelligentsia handling the social media, trained their guns on India, accusing it of bringing about a regime change to punish Thinley for making overtures to regional rival China.

It was to arrest this anti-Indian trend that Manmohan Singh’s successor, Narendra Modi, decided not to indulge in any saber rattling during the Doklam standoff with China and put tiny Bhutan in a cleft stick. Modi also shed considerations of prestige and quietly entered into a détente with China which eventually led to the two-day informal summit with the Chinese President Xi Jinping in April this year.

Therefore, in the National Assembly (NA) elections to be held later this year overt Indian interference is unlikely. Though South Block and RAW are still worried about Chinese encroachment into India’s spheres of influence in Bhutan and other countries of South Asia, overt opposition to China has been eschewed.

India, under Modi, now considers an open confrontation with China more unwelcome than the increasing Chinese presence in its backyard.

Therefore, the coming election campaigns in Bhutan may not focus much on the country’s relations with India and China. They are more likely to be based on internal governance issues.

For instance, the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party(PDP) led by Prime Minister Topgay, is now filtering candidates on the basis of their performance at the constituency level. It is reported that at least ten of the current PDP members of the National Assembly will not get tickets. It is therefore likely that domestic issues will dominate the Bhutanese National Assembly elections.

Political parties are proliferating with democracy taking root. Initially there were only two parties. But by October 2017, there were five. There is concern that an increase in the number of parties may lead to mobilization on social, religious or communal basis. The Constitution expressly bars religious parties but there could be mobilization on other bases which might tear Bhutan’s social fabric.

Having successfully managed the Doklam crisis through restraint and quiet diplomacy, and given India’s new policy of restraint towards Bhutan, Prime Minister Tobgay feels that he is on a good wicket to win the NA elections.

However, even observers who believe that Tobgay is on a good wicket feel that given the mounting intellectual pressure to re-work the country’s relations with India, his regime cannot be counted on to be New Delhi’s vassal and avoid overtures to Beijing.

Nepalese immigrants’ Question

An issue which might come in the coming elections is the fate of Nepalese political prisoners. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) claimed that as of 2015, there were at least 63 political prisoners in the Chamgang Central Jail in Thimphu, out of a total prison population of 537.

Most political prisoners were Nepali-speaking persons associated with protests in the early 1990s against the revocation of their citizenship.

The Bhutan government reported that as of December 2014, there were 55 prisoners serving sentences resulting from convictions under the National Security Act or its related penal code provisions. No international monitors have sought access to these prisoners so far.

However, election results, including those of the National Council, show that candidates of Nepalese origin have done well.

Electoral System

It was only in 2008 that democracy was introduced in Bhutan. The first democratic elections were held in 2008, followed by another in 2013 as per the constitutional timetable.

Bhutan has an elaborate multi-layered electoral process. In the National Assembly elections, in the first Primary round, interested parties file a letter of intent along with the names of the candidates which is scrutinized by the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) after the last date of withdrawal.

Once approved, the parties that qualify would head into the Primary round. The two parties getting the highest overall popular votes would then head into the General Election round.

In the General Election round, the focus would be more on the candidates because individual constituency seats go up for grabs. Candidates get elected on the First Past the Post basis.

For the National Council (NC), the electoral process starts from the Geowog (village block) level where candidates are shortlisted for the final round at the Dzongkhag (district) level.

(The featured image at the top shows Bhutanese voters queuing up at polling stations in 2013)