Misconception of democracy in Bhutan

Published on Jul 31 2009 // Commentary
By I. P. Adhikari

This is how the democracy in this newest democracy is functioning – if you read the recent statement by Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley made at the National Council (Upper House) session in Thimphu.

According to him, no laws have mentioned that ministers have to attend question-answer hour at the upper house. This is ridiculous. In a democracy, parliament has the highest authority and has the right to interrogate ministers or any other government officials on matters the lawmakers think important.

It is not surprising that Bhutan has no laws making it mandatory that ministers attend the upper house debates or present at its call. As a new entrant to an accountable-government system of politics, Bhutan not only lacks this kind of law but laws on many fronts which people expect to get formulated through the parliament they elected.

In a democracy, both the Houses have equal weigh in decision making and legislation formulation in bicameral parliamentary democracy. The statement by the PM Thinley is grave ignorance of the spirit of democracy and disrespect of its values.

Despite several calls, as planned well before the parliament session begun and furnished to ministers to plan their schedule, the ministers failed to turn up to the National Council for question hour. This has disrupted several meetings of the House.

PM but mentioned that government wish to harmonise relation between the government and the parliament that has turned quite bitter – in fact seriously bitter. This bitterness between the executive and the legislator wing is a reflection of rivalry seen within the parliament. Since the first session of the first elected parliament, the two Houses failed to see each other eye to eye on important national issues. Thus was the result of the political parties ignoring upper house where they have no influences. National Assembly barring the upper house debating on some of the important national issues like budget has further widened the gap within the legislature.

The symptom is injurious for the new born democracy. The ministers and the prime minister have obligation, by the principle of natural law, to attend the legislative session and answer questions raised by the MPs. As per the Bhutanese constitution and laws, the upper house is review body for government functioning and if government ministers fail to tell the House what government is doing to help National Council compare with what its members observed in their localities, review of government functioning is impossible. Failure of one house to deliver its duty is failure of the democracy. This is where the political leadership of Bhutan is taking this country to.

The layman observation implies that Bhutanese politicians are yet to embrace the democratic culture or have not understood the core norms and values of democracy. This is reflected in a recent debate in BBS TV as well.

The DPT spokesperson and member of the parliament from Bji-Katsho-Uesu constituency in Paro district Ugen Tenzin said parliament in a democracy means joint sitting of the two Houses only. In other sense, when the two houses are sitting separately, it isn’t called ‘parliament in session’. If it was his interpretation of parliament session, it is held only four days in a year – opening and closing of summer and winter sessions which are generally observed in joint sitting.

In the same discussion, minister for health Zangley Dukpa defined government to be the bureaucracy only in an effort on his part to avoid inquiry from public who were questioning through phones why ministers failed to turn up the National Council call. He called those callers on the phone criticising the government for ignoring NC to be members of some interest groups but failed clarify what that interest group is. And he added demand for public holiday on Nyenpa Guzon, a Buddhist festival. Is there any authority to determine public holidays and meet demands of a minister?

The interviewer at the TV Dawa seemed to be quizzing less than needed, a fear that still exist in Bhutanese journalists to interrogate political leaders. The threat prime minister gave to journalists last year for questioning him is still ruling the nation.

The sheer ignorance of the upper house by the government is because of absence of political influence or representation there. If the logic of prime minister was to believe, there are also no laws where ministers and prime ministers should attend the calls from people and answer them in a public forum. This won’t be a democracy, democratic culture.

There seems to be serious flaws on concept and thought about Bhutanese political leadership regarding the democracy and its values. They certainly need orientation on this.