State of ‘Democracy’ in Bhutan

Published on Apr 16 2009 // News Analysis
By Dr D. N. S. Dhakal

The fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuk decided to give “limited democracy” to Bhutanese people in the late 1990s when he realized that under the leadership of Rongthong Kunley Dorji the Sarchop community from the east had joined the democratic struggle which was until then confined in southern Bhutan, only among the Lhotsampa population. The first step for him was to give a written constitution and define new contours of Bhutanese politics. 

He commissioned a 39-member Constitution Drafting Committee under the leadership of chief justice Sonam Tobgaye. Three Lhotsampa members were included in the drafting committee. After a long and arduous consultation the committee released the draft constitution on March 26, 2005 for discussion and debate among the government servants, the common people, and in the National Assembly. Initially, the draft constitution had 37 Articles covering a wide spectrum of political, social and security issues, including duties and responsibilities of Bhutanese citizen!

The constitution defines two-party political system. It delineates 47 constituencies for the National Assembly of Bhutan, which is considered the Lower House of Parliament. The National Council, which is considered equivalent to the Upper House, would have 25 members with one apolitical elected representative from each of the 20 dzongkhags and five nominated by the king. Only can a candidate with formal graduate level university degree contest election. Royal family members and practicing monks are barred from politics, including exercising their voting rights. The king and the members of royal family are entitled to annuities from the state.

At the time of adoption on July 18, 2008 the constitution had 35 Articles. The constitution has many shortcomings. The king could use ‘royal prerogatives’ to influence legislative, executive and judiciary power. Article 2 prohibits the legislative assemblies from amending the monarch’s constitutional power. Article 20(7) provides authority to the monarch to sack an elected prime minister or his cabinet. Article 10(8) provides space for the monarch to send messages to the legislative assemblies; Article 10(12) empowers the monarch to convene extraordinary sessions of the legislative assemblies; Article 11(1)(b) enables the monarch to nominate 20 percent of the total members in the National Council; and Article 13(10) and 13(11) creates opportunities for the monarch to block bills even if passed by both the National Assembly and the National Council. 

The exiled political parties struggling for the establishment of inclusive democracy in Bhutan have dubbed it as the “King’s Constitution”. Indian Prime Minister Dr Man Mohan Singh has credited the fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuk as the architect of the constitution and the polity in Bhutan. This remark came while addressing the joint session of the first so called elected parliament in Thimphu on May 17, 2008. 

Bhutan did not have any political parties operating legally within the country until a year before the date of so called democratic election. Political events unfolded in Bhutan surprised everyone. The fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuk abdicated the throne on December 9, 2006 in favor of his eldest son Jigme Khesar Namgayal Wangchuk. PDP, headed by Sangey Needup Dorji, maternal uncle of the present king, was founded on March 24, 2007. The party’s vision statement states that its goal is to transform Bhutan into a democratic polity as envisioned by the fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck. 

DPT, the party today in power, was established on July 25, 2007. This party is headed by the current Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley whose matrimonial relationship in the royal household is well known. Other lesser known political parties, namely APP and BPUP were formed but they were quickly dismantled and merged with DPT. The DPT claims to represent the common people as it is headed by a Sarchop, and its cadre is drawn cutting across the Bhutanese society. But in practice DPT is more royalist than PDP, allocating key portfolios of the party among the former, senior civil servants who were thick and thin with the formulation and implementation of racist policy of 1990s in Bhutan. The party’s stated goal is to realize the noble dream of the fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuk.

Both PDP and DPT entered the election trail that was first ever permitted in the Kingdom of Bhutan. The Indian Election Commission was invited to help Bhutan’s fledging Election Commission to conduct the first adult franchise election in all the 20 dzongkhags. The election was conducted in phases and no incidence of violence was reported.

Mock elections were held to teach people on how to cast ballots. Primary elections were held to eliminate minor parties or individuals contesting the election. The DPT swept the election winning 45 out of 47 seats in the National Assembly. The DPT had fielded nine Lhotsampa candidates in South Bhutan. All of them won the election capturing nearly 19 percent of the total seats in the National Assembly. The PDP too had fielded Lhotsampa candidates but none of them could secure a victory. In the National Council two candidates from the Lhotsampa community were elected: Justin Gurung from Tsirang Dzongkhag and Dr Mani Kumar Rai from Samtse Dzongkhag. The king did not nominate a Lhotsampa in the National Council. 

It seems the whole election exercise was premeditated, orchestrated with regards to who should win, how many candidates would be fielded from the Lhotsampa community, and who among the Lhotsampas would get tickets for contesting the election. In the earlier National Assembly 16 seats were given to Lhotsmapa in the house of 151. In northern, eastern and central Bhutan one national assembly member represented one block whereas in southern Bhutan a representative represented four blocks at the minimum. In addition, Drukpa Khagyu church was allocated seat in the National Assembly. The same recognition was not there for Hindu religion to which the overwhelming majority of the Lhotsampa population belongs. 

This constitution is definitely an improvement for the Lhotsampa community although it contains subtle mechanism to discriminate the Lhotsampa community in the delineation of the constituencies. For example, Gasa Dzongkhag had 1,743 registered voters in 2008 election but it got two constituencies for the National Assembly and one for National Council. Whereas Samtse Dzongkhag had 39,320 registered voters and it got four constituencies for the National Assembly and one for National Council. There is a clear distinction in seat delineation for South, East, West and Central Bhutan. In this election, roughly one candidate represented 10,000 voters in southern Bhutan, 6,000 voters in eastern Bhutan, 5,000 voters in western Bhutan and 4,000 voters in central Bhutan in the National Assembly. As per the government report, the total registered voters were 400,626 individuals; of which the south had 1185849 individuals, representing nearly 30 percent of the total eligible voters. Their representation in the National Assembly remained at 19 percent.

The new political dispensation seems to make effort to take the Lhotsampa population into confidence. The DPT has appointed Yanku Tshering as Sherpa Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Thakur Singh Powdyal as Minister of Education, and Nandalal Rai as Minister of Information and Communication. Earlier Om Pradhan was the only person who had reached the rank of a cabinet minister from the Lhotsampa community. 

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