Though it has been a democracy in name for five years, Bhutan remains close to British author James Hilton’s description of “Shangri-La”. The word “change” still does not capture the hearts of the people of this Buddhist nation, as was seen in the elections two weeks ago.
Voters wait to cast ballots in Thimpu. Only about 55% of the country's 380,000 registered voters took part in the first round of polling.
One might wonder why Bhutanese men and women braved rains and landslides to cast their votes on May 31 in the first round of a two-stage election. About 55% of the roughly 380,000 registered voters stood in queues under their umbrellas on slushy, sloping roads — some had walked for days to reach their polling stations — to determine the two largest parties that would compete in the main election on July 13. Perhaps they knew there is no such thing as a free lunch, even if they wanted the status quo.
In 2008, when Bhutan had its first-ever democratic election, only two parties met the registration threshold — the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (locally known as the DPT, and which had leaders who held senior positions under the monarchy) and the People’s Democratic Party, also royalist. The DPT swept that election with 45 of the National Assembly’s 47 seats, and its opponent won only two.
Five years later, two more registered parties have emerged in this nation of a little more than 700,000 people, comparable with the population of Thailand’s Lop Buri province. But the majority of the voters stuck to the “old” parties in the May 31 preliminary round.
The DPT, the party of former prime minister Jigme Y. Thinley, got the highest number of votes in 33 constituencies. The party led by former opposition leader Tshering Tobgay won in 12 constituencies. The two new parties (Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa and Druk Chirwang Tshogpa), both led by women and royalists, received majority votes only in two constituencies.
It seems the former ruling and opposition parties will return to their respective benches in parliament in July — though perhaps the opposition will occupy more space this time around. The tables can be turned only if the former opposition party gets the majority of the votes that went to the new parties in the preliminary round — an uphill task for Tobgay.
A key struggle for the opposition and new parties was to differentiate themselves from Thinley’s party. One strategy Thinley’s opponents adopted was to describe themselves as nyamchung, a Bhutanese word for “humble” — which obviously didn’t work.
King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his consort Queen Jetsun Pema remain enormously popular. Citizens trekked for days to attend their wedding in 2011.
While there is room for more civil and political rights in Bhutan, no party called for change, except for subtle inferences. The manifestoes of all parties are generally aligned to the 11th Five Year Plan, which begins in July, with no hint of a political ideology.
A 49-year-old climatologist, who identified himself only as Needup, told the Bangkok Post he only looked at the pool of candidates of each party to decide who to vote for. “The manifestoes of all the parties are quite similar,” he said, as stood in a queue to vote at the Dazhi polling station in Thimphu.
However, Thinley’s party is seen as the closest to the status quo, and is therefore it is opposed by sections of the urban youth and private media. Critics also say Thinley sought to promote Bhutan’s unique philosophy of “gross national happiness” — a unique way of measuring the country’s progress instead of using gross domestic product — around the world while neglecting the needs at home. As well, two of the senior members of Thinley’s party were recently convicted in corruption cases. Yet, Thinley is likely to have the last laugh.
For most Bhutanese, democracy is about choosing a party that would best carry on the legacy of the monarchs. Bhutan has never been colonised, and there has never been a major unrest in the country, apart from protests against alleged discrimination by sections of the ethnic Nepalese population in the south in the 1990s, which led to a crackdown by the government of the day.
Pema, a former government employee and a voter, said Bhutan was more peaceful under the monarchy, but now there are divisions along political lines. “In the area of governance, little has changed after democracy.”
Democracy was a “gift” to the people of the nation — against their wish — from the king, who is revered by almost all Bhutanese people. Many pleaded with the king not to introduce democracy.
Though Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy now, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s popularity continues to be unmatched. At his wedding in October 2011, people walked for days to arrive at a monastery in Punakha, the venue of the royal event.
Before the first democratic election in 2008, voters were uncertain about the country’s future as a democracy. Its fragile status as a tiny nation between the two giants India and China is a common refrain among the people.
Geopolitical fears are quite visible in Bhutan. All Bhutanese citizens are required to observe the national dress code — the gho for men and kira for women — while in public. Bhutan also has an architectural code for all buildings. Cultural distinctiveness and harmony are a tourist attraction, but they also reflect an attempt to mark the nation’s territory.
Chencho, a 35-year-old government employee and a voter, said, “We are small in geographical area and population. We should have remained under the monarchy. But since we are a democracy now, I voted keeping in mind the need for stability more than anything else.”
Tshering, a 76-year-old woman standing behind Chencho, had a somewhat similar concern. “I have never seen any major calamity in the country, but now with political parties dividing us, I fear the gods might get furious,” she said. “We can already see our crop getting affected.”
About the author
Writer: Vishal Arora