Depening democracy: paradoxical Paro conference

Published on Oct 31 2009 // News Analysis
By Buddha Mani Dhakal

Bhutan hosted the three day international conference on “Deepening and Sustaining democracy” (12-14 Oct), jointly organized by the Center for Bhutan studies and UNDP. It should be a matter of pride for the government of Bhutan to hold such magnanimous conference with a bit of experience on democracy. But for the SAARC region it is quite a surprise. UNDP’s regional director for Asia-pacific, Ajay Chhibber and Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley should have shared even greater happiness to have realized their idea conceived far-off in New York a year back.

Certainly enough, Bhutan is not a champion of democracy which is gifted by the palace to politicians-turned- bureaucrats to try. Another cautious step to transition, Bhutanese democracy is a top-down approach carefully planned and handled by the former royalists who pretended and advocated democracy to be an ill form of governance, at least in Bhutan. Although the conference aimed to initiate sufficient dialogue on the models and components of democracy; failures and success of democracy in the region, it did so very little for the Bhutanese people themselves.

Bhutanese model of democracy
Lessons are learned through experience, and it is true for building up of democratic culture.  It is appreciating that Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley talked of taking challenges by the government to inculcate democratic values and culture in Bhutanese society starting at zero level.  The exercise of power by an elected government, functioning of a bicameral parliamentary system and independence of judiciary is integral to fostering of democracy. Bhutanese democracy clearly lacks the independence of judiciary whereby the king continues to act as the highest court of appeal sans Supreme Court and appellate courts.

The onus for protection and guidance of the constitution is vested upon the king, which is essentially against the core value of vibrant democracy. Incase of any constitutional hindrances, the interpretation of the constitution remains void without the independent judiciary.

The participatory approach of democracy is simply limited to the voting of representatives to the parliament that excluded hundreds of people from their voting rights in first ever general election. The Bhutanese people were not given the free choice of candidates to represent them because of the pre-determined candidates of the two parties. The village units or gewogs are poorly equipped and virtually powerless in strengthening the grass-root democracy. As used to be, the gewog heads are merely the implementing agents of the government orders (often termed as royal decree) with very little or no say in the official decision.  Prime Minister Thinley put a high regard to the fourth king for his “persuasiveness and sacrifice” to allow democracy but not the struggle of people, evidently keeping aside the fact of historical people’s movement for democracy. Thus Jigmi is hinting at Bhutanese democracy without participatory approach or undermining the value of electoral process that enhances people’s capacity to make decision.

The local government act is passed with no complete framework of the grass-root democracy.  The election of townships and municipalities to constitute a local government is in the air. However, with no proper training and empowerment of local heads, it would be another excuse for the Thinley government to blow trumpet that the people are not of full capacity for democratic exercise. For the democracy to take root, the grass-root democracy should be strengthened which requires empowering and educating local leaders with democratic norms and practices in the first place.

If anyone in the government takes the decentralization of 1980s to be the predecessor of present local government act, it would not be for the democracy the government stands. Contrary to what Jigmi Thinley says, the country did not have a set of law-abiding legal instruments, no administrative system that could be held accountable and no such special institutional arrangements which could lead to democracy. All that was in place was a chain of commands in administration without actual debate and discourse (it was not permitted to the lower-level officials to reply the higher-level officials) on any important matters of public interest. It was one way flow of information and the local heads simply implemented the “commands”.

Scholars might be misguided to think that Bhutanese people participated in democracy through eletoral process. The two parties allowed to contest in the election came to the people with few wayward election agenda, rather not to inform about the constitution, civic rights, political transition and nothing about democracy for the people. So the people once again voted for the individuals just as they used to do for the National Assembly election of absolute monarchy.

In his inaugural address to the conference, PM Thinley pointed out that people fail to understand the power and value of vote and so the responsibility that comes along with power. But with such non-instinctive and sweeping collection of vote, how responsible will the prime minister be towards Bhutanese people in and outside of the country?

Multiparty and pluralism
Multiparty is not accepted in the Bhutanese parliamentary system. Of the two parties allowed to contest in the election, one DPT is declared as having a landslide victory over the other (with only two seats). Thus Bhutanese parliament has a very weak opposition that cannot sufficiently play role to maintain check and balance in the democracy. Pluralism of the society and its intellect was long forbidden in the name of preserving unique culture, following the introduction of ‘One Nation, One People’ policy and compulsion to follow Driglam Namzha. With the mainstream culture of not recognizing the diversity of people’s language, culture, religion and ethnicity, there exists inherent fear in the public to express differently. Consequent to this, the parliament is formed with a bi-party system, eliminating the prospect of emerging pluralism in the polity. But one can expect some dire situations.  As Nepalese political leader Dr. Narayan Khadka puts in his address to the conference, the unsatisfied and unrecognized can find other outlets to assert their participation which could be volatile, an example of Nepal. A number of small ethnic communities such as Doya, Khengpa, Brokpa besides the Lhotshampas that live in interior Bhutan are still marginalized.

Pluralism not necessarily means multiparty, but a variety of intellectual inputs, free expression of public opinions, initiation of debates and dialogues among all stakeholders to make participatory democracy. A brain-child of fourth king, the DPT government led by Jigmi Thinley, a long time royal representative still fears the pluralistic society. He seems to be much pessimistic about capacity building to empower the various section of Bhutanese populace. If the government is committed to nurture grass-root democracy with established values and culture, it must initiate the practice of maximizing the participation of smaller communities in the decision-making process while acknowledging their diversity and safeguarding their freedom. It is not just organizing a conference and deliberating democracy with no basic practice.

The parties are again regional, though formation of such regional parties was discouraged. Socially and economically they are in poor shape. The social network of the parties to connect people is too feeble. The heads of party face a critical shortage of fund to spend in carrying out party activities and the opposition party is already in debt. It is not a green signal to favor multiparty pluralism.

Ushering of multiparty democracy in Bhutan is continually advocated by the parties in exile. Not better-off, the exile parties are making efforts to find a better option to the ongoing political development in the country.  They deserve to be included in the present political framework, at least to serve as a strong opposition.

Significance of Paro conference: Realize it
The conference is of paramount importance to share experiences on the failure and success of democracy, framing an appropriate model of democracy particularly in context of Bhutan.   The conference, in its truest substance, is the ideal opportunity for evolving democracies to pocket in a host of lessons and develop vision towards a more inclusive democracy. So the Bhutanese politicians need to reconsider the transition for inclusiveness if the goals of GNH have to realize.

The conference is not just about discussing philosophical underpinnings of democracy, but also a way to hammer out suitable tools for its constant refinement and renovation. Accountability, transparency, rule of law, freedom of speech and expression, equality in delivery of justice are some facets of good governance that form the basis for deepening democracy.  The DPT government of Bhutan has been facing several setbacks in proving itself accountable and responsible, quite far from good governance.

The conference could be best capitalized by the policy makers and the government office-holders to explore pragmatic measures towards attaining good governance already in place in the region.

Realization of the shared experiences at the conference in context of Bhutan is to lay the foundation stone of people’s democracy which in turn will be the harbinger of freedom for all exiles to participate in the development of Bhutan days ahead.