Will a Political Upset in Bhutan Work to China's Advantage?
The Citizen’s foreign affairs primer
Anti-incumbency, or perhaps just a Bhutanese desire for change, appeared to have fashioned voting patterns in the primary round of the third election to the National Assembly, held on September 15 2018. Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay conceded defeat after the results, from a voter turnout of 59.9 percent, showed his People’s Democratic Party (PDP) trailing behind the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) and the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (Druk Phuensum Tshogpa or DPT).
Tobgay, whose party held 32 seats in the National Assembly after the 2013 elections, had hoped to win another term but obviously the Bhutanese felt otherwise. The DNT’s performance was noteworthy as it had not even had representation in the National Assembly after the 2013 elections. Media comment suggested that the DNT’s leader Lotay Tshering had endeared himself to the people as a very accessible surgeon. He himself said the party’s victory was because of the focus it had promised to put on health issues.
The second round of the elections, on a first past the post basis, is scheduled for September 18 and will be between the DNT and the DPT. While the latter held 15 seats in the National Assembly after the last elections, the primary round seemed to indicate that Tshering would end up as the new Prime Minister.
Bhutan, which witnessed its first general election in 2008, has a national bicameral parliamentary legislature. The National Assembly of Bhutan is the lower house of Parliament and has 47 members as of 2011. The maximum number of seats at any time is 55, with each member representing a single-seat constituency. The National Council of Bhutan, the upper house of Parliament, has 20 non-partisan members popularly elected by each dzongkhag (district) and 5 members appointed by the king of Bhutan.
The change from a unicameral legislature came with the Constitution of 2008 and the enactment of the Election Act of that year. The Election Act established two financially and politically autonomous government commissions to oversee various aspects of elections, voting, and constituency delimitation. The Election Commission is responsible for overseeing the electoral framework established under the Act, including laws on parties, candidates, elections and election rolls. It is endowed with quasi-judicial powers.
The Delimitation Commission is an ancillary commission whose sole function is to demarcate single-member constituencies for representatives in parliament and local governments. The king appoints the chief election commissioner and two other election commissioners for five-year terms from a list submitted by the prime minister, the chief justice, the speaker of the National Assembly, the chairperson of the National Council, and the leader of the opposition party.
Under the Constitution religious figures and institutions must remain out of politics, as must the monarchy. Political parties must commit to promoting democracy and are not allowed to organise along regional, gender, language, or religious lines. The Election Commission denies applications of parties based on status, business concerns; of those with military or paramilitary structures; and uses its discretion in other cases. Candidates for the elections cannot be foreign citizens. They have to be Bhutanese citizens between the ages of 25 and 65, and must be members of the constituencies they represent. A formal university degree is a must for a person to be a candidate for Parliament. They have to make public disclosures regarding their professions, income, assets and liabilities, educational qualifications, and criminal record for review and have also to obtain a security clearance. A candidate can be disqualified inter alia on grounds of imprisonment or being found guilty of corruption in elections, or being married to a foreigner or holding any office of profit. Citizens eighteen years or older who have been registered in their constituency for at least one year and who hold a citizenship identity card, and have not been disqualified for any reason under the electoral act, can cast a single vote in the elections.
There are at present five registered political parties in Bhutan. They are the Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP), the Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT), the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
There are a host of political parties operating in exile, among them being:
The Bhutan Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist)
The Bhutan Democratic Socialist Party
The Bhutan Gorkha National Liberation Front
The Bhutan National Congress
The Bhutan National Democratic Party
The Bhutan National Party
The Bhutan Peoples' Party
The Bhutan Tiger Force (which is the armed wing of the Bhutan Communist Party)
The Bhutanese Movement Steering Committee
The Druk National Congress (which was reported to have support from Nepal where it was formed in 1994).
In 2010 these exiled parties formed an umbrella group to pursue a unified democratic movement led by Rongthong Kunley Dorji, president of the Druk National Congress.
Some commentators in India have suggested that the political change in Bhutan might work to China’s advantage. The Chinese have been assiduously wooing Bhutan and the Bhutanese have probably realised after the Doklam incident that choosing between neighbours also carries a price. Except for the PDP whose manifesto declared that they would "continue the ongoing border negotiations with China”, the manifestos of other parties are singularly silent on the Chinese factor.
The PDP and the DPT are focusing on employment generation in a country that has relied heavily for this on the hydropower sector, in which India has been playing a key role. The outgoing PDP declared in its manifesto that Bhutan’s foreign policy would prioritise strengthening the friendship with India. The BKP manifesto claims that the party would seek to eliminate all forms of nepotism and discrimination and reward meritocracy and talent. It has titled its manifesto “A self-reliant Bhutan: our concern our responsibility”. The promotion of unity and integration and human rights through equity, social justice, legal, administrative and security safeguards are the promises that the BKP has held out to voters. The DPT manifesto, according to its General Secretary Sangay Phurba, also talks about equity and justice.
How will the new political dispensation fashion its approach to India and China? Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the comment of an urban Bhutanese quoted by The Quint: “We like India but we don’t like Indians, we don’t like China but we like the Chinese.”