Democracy Still Taking Root in Bhutan

Bhutan was a latecomer to democracy. The small Himalayan kingdom joined the ranks of democratic nations only in 2008, when the first national elections were held and its constitution approved. But since then, how is democracy developing in the country?

Elections are the most visible symbols of democratic rule. There have been two national elections – in 2008 and 2013 – to choose the members of the partisan National Assembly and the non-partisan National Council. The system seems to be working well. The 2013 election saw greater political competition with two new parties running alongside the two original parties for the National Assembly. And there were more candidates for positions in the National Council. This non-partisan body acts as the house of review in the Bhutanese parliament.

In 2013, control of government changed hands from the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa Party (DPT or Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party) to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) after the DPT was unable to entrench itself following its first term. There were very few occurrences of the election malpractices evident in Bhutan’s South Asian neighbours. Electoral violence is virtually unknown and vote-buying is rare. The Election Commission runs a tight ship and vigilantly enforces the long list of electoral rules. Democracy also reached subnational levels in 2011 with the first local government elections. The elections ran fairly smoothly although in some places there was only one candidate.

Such aspirants to political office are, however, still subject to a “yes” or “no” vote. Local government has assumed growing significance as development funds have been decentralized to the subnational territories for local citizens and their elected leaders to choose what projects they will have in their areas. Various institutions associated with good democratic practice have also been performing well. The parliament is orderly and goes about its work with purpose and in a spirit of coope-
ration. The judiciary has been seen to be acting independently and takes its role of guardian of the constitution seriously, such as when it found the speaker and a cabinet minister of the former government guilty of illegal land dealings. The judiciary has also been undergoing modernization by appointing younger judges with modern legal training.

The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) and the Royal Audit Commission (RAC) have been very successful in addressing corruption which the king has identified as “the highest probable risk to development”. An external evaluation in 2013 noted the considerable progress that had been made in preventing and prosecuting corruption. This is reflected in Bhutan’s rise from 45th position in 2008 to 30th in 2014 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, well above most developing countries and even some in Western Europe. The activities of the ACC and RAC are also appreciated by citizens who reported in a 2012 survey that they believed cor-
ruption had declined.

But it has not been just good news. The turnouts for both the 2013 National Council and National Assembly elections fell from the 2008 figures. For the National Council election, only 45 per cent of registered voters turned out, down from 53 per cent in 2008. The preliminary election for the National Assembly (where the two parties contesting the general election are chosen) attracted a 55 per cent turnout. The general election saw 66 per cent of registered voters at the polling stations, down from 79 per cent in 2008.

If these trends continue at the next set of elections in 2018, there will be concerns about how committed Bhutan’s citizens are to democracy. Parties remain weak institutions with small levels of funding, low memberships – between 135 and 799 members in 2013 – and are governed by strict rules. All parties and can-
didates must promote national unity and the state development philosophy of gross national happiness, reflecting the concern for stability in the Bhutanese policy. An other indicator of this is that only two parties can contest the general election.

This ensures that there will be a government party and an opposition party – no coalitions or shifted alle - giances can occur for the five-year duration of the parliament.

Women Empowerment versus Cultural Beliefs

Bhutan’s already low female representation fell lower in 2013. No women were elected to the National Council and only four to the 47-person National Assembly. Female candidates were in short supply, a reflection of demography and culture. There are fewer eligible women than men because all candidates must have a uni-
versity degree and there are far fewer women with such qualifications. There are also cultural beliefs concerning the role and status of women which militate against their standing and winning. While the two new parties for 2013 were headed by women, both lost in the preliminary election for the National Assembly.

The constitution guarantees a variety of freedom to citizens of Bhutan. One is freedom of association. But this has not led to a flourishing civil society. Apart from political parties there are some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in areas such as women’s and children’s issues and environment. But NGOs must not stray into areas that might be perceived as threatening national security such as though not illegal – simply do not occur.

Freedom of religion is also declared in the constitution and the state is officially secular. However, the constitution also notes that society is “rooted in Buddhism”, the dominant religion with 75 percent of citizens as adherents. The state gives support to Buddhist monasteries and associated religious activities although monks are barred from politics. Missionaries of all persuasions are banned while the government gives approval for religious buildings. Freedom of expression is also as - sured in the constitution. The advent of democracy has led to considerable growth of mass media, especially newspapers and radio.

The two television channels are still state-owned. While mass media do publish stories critical of government, there appears to be self-censorship. Newspapers have small circulations and are highly dependent on government advertising and this financial clout appears, at times, to have been used to influence content. The 2014 Reporters Without Borders ranking of media freedom saw Bhutan slip ten places to 92 out of 180 countries but still ahead of its South Asian neighbours. Social media have taken off.

This has provided opportunities for more critical voices via the mobile phones that have penetrated the farthest corners of the remote country. From the very beginning, Bhutan took an unusual path to democracy. It was decreed by the Fourth King as his “gift” to the nation. But although his citizens could not refuse the gift, the question of whether they have fully accepted it remains unanswered.

Mark Turner

Mark Turner is Visiting Professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.