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Bhutan’s Historic Transition from Absolute Monarchy to Absolute Majority

From the bombshell His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo dropped on his unsuspecting subjects on 9 December 2006 to the electoral rout meted out by Druk Phuensum Tshogpa on 27 March 2008, Bhutan’s roller-coaster ride from monarchy to democracy has been a run of one irony after another.

The Abdication Paradox – The Emperor’s New Close

When in late 2006 Palden Drukpa’s fourth hereditary monarch informed an extraordinary meeting of cabinet ministers of his sovereign decision to step down from the golden throne and hand over the raven crown to his eldest son and heir-apparent, Crown Prince Jigme Khesar, a fly on the wall would have heard a pin drop. And when, via grapevine, the momentous news filtered down to the masses, there was general disbelief mingled with grief.

Why would a ruler at the height of his power, prowess and popularity seek to relinquish the reins? was the question, born in Bhutan, which verily went around the world.

But this was no ‘Lear’y brainstorm but vintage king’s end game. To paraphrase His Majesty’s own words, the transition to democracy was no overnight phenomenon but an ongoing process, anchored in the 1981 decentralisation to dzongkhag levels, extended in 1991 down to the gewogs. Also, a committee of eminent persons had been entrusted way back in 2001 with the task of drafting a Constitution –a development that should have hinted at his future intentions and stands testimony to his characteristic foresight- which now awaits ratification by the first democratically elected Parliament.

It is far better, he explained, for a nation to take this historic step when it enjoys peace and progress than to do so under duress, like so many others have, in times of violent upheaval. He went on to outline his blueprint -Bhutan’s roadmap to democracy- and, overruling nationwide calls to recant, when he went around the country as was his wont to discuss the issues with his people, forged ahead to put in place the stepping stones towards realising his vision.

With two constitutional bodies now established, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) and the Election Commission (EC), His Majesty the King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck on the throne and the first elected government in place, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s grand design is well on track to denouement.

The Party Paradox – The Two Sides of the Sovereign

Of the two parties, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), that fielded candidates in the 2008 national assembly (NA) elections, the former, like the proverbial hare, was first off the blocks. Brainchild of Sangay Ngedup, former minister of health/education, later of agriculture and twice prime minister, PDP was branded the “royalty’s” party –a wholly mistaken notion in view of the clear-cut Constitutional proscription against royal participation in politics- while DPT subsequently got dubbed “royalist” by the foreign media. Both parties chose to be guided by the development philosophy of GNH, a Bhutan trademark value system patented by HM the fourth King.

With the advantage of an early launch, PDP got first pick of the crop and put together a formidable team of candidates, including two ministers -Sangay Ngedup and Jigme Singye- and a constellation of civil service stars and other luminaries. Nonetheless, from the onset, the party was perceived by intelligentsia as having the unfair boon (or bane, as maybe) of familial moorings. And though civil servants were restricted by EC from active politics, this perception stuck in the urban psyche and may have impacted on the eventual outcome.

Meanwhile, DPT made a stuttering tortoise-like start. A group of prominent citizens initiated a political association to present a credible challenge to what increasingly looked like a one-horse-race, with PDP in sole contention. The most immediate problem this makeshift dispensation faced was the lack of any stellar leadership to match PDP’s Sangye Ngedup. The other ministers, including home minister Jigmi Y Thinley, when approached by this wannabe faction, remained non-committal.

To nobody’s surprise, several months later, in July 2007, five ministers -Jigmi Thinley, Yeshey Zimba, Khandu Wangchuk, Ugyen Tshering, Wangdi Norbu- resigned from government and took over the fledgling party. This influx of leaders into an hitherto headless clique ruffled some feathers and the party splintered into two: DPT and the erstwhile Bhutan’s People’s United Party (BPUP), which made an early, embarrassing exit when its registration application was rejected by EC for not meeting required criteria.

The stage was thus set for a one-on-one face-off between the two parties still standing and the twin trio of initials, PDP and DPT, entered Bhutanese lexicon and consciousness.

The Campaign Paradox – Bad Hare Days

To enable a level playing field, EC exercised control over every aspect of the campaign, from eligibility (graduates need only apply) to expenditure (Nu 100 thousand per head). Originally, in the event of more than two competing parties, two rounds of voting were slated, the first to determine which two would contest the second and decisive round. But when perforce BPUP bowed out, a first round turned redundant.

Nevertheless, with the preceding national council (NC) election in January 2008 of 20 members to the upper, impartial house of a bicameral parliament-to-be, a dress rehearsal of sorts took place. Not to belittle its import, this ballot allowed all concerned a dry run before the ‘real’ thing. Bhutanese were treated to a first-hand taste of TV debates, campaigns and electronic voting machines (EVM) for the election, which seemed almost an incidental run-up to the highly emotive party politics to follow. And though the televised debates proved to be a damp squib and voter turnout modest (less than 55 percent), the NC elections, which went off like clockwork, did provide valuable experience.

Given that both DPT and PDP subscribed to GNH and its four pillars, the choice between the parties boiled down not to ideology but personality, particularly with respect to the presidents, Sangay Ngedup and Jigmi Thinley. This idiosyncracy was patent, albeit among a computer-literate minority, in a Kuensel online poll, which revealed, by a huge margin, that party and president eclipsed platform in determining voting trends.

The PDP manifesto -party symbol: a rearing stallion- could be distilled into its two slogans of being a party that would “Walk the Talk” and provide “Service with Humility”. The first evoked the much hyped though admirable ‘Move for Health’ campaign its president had conducted during his health ministry heydays, and the second resurrected his proactive avatar as agriculture minister, when he promoted rural development, chiefly in the field of farm roads. DPT –party symbol: a trio of black-necked cranes in synchronous flight- in a nutshell, promised “Growth with Equity and Justice” and opted for rooting out corruption as its USP.

The campaign had two phases: the first, in December 2007, a ‘familiarisation’ tour, wherein candidates were directed to introduce themselves and ‘educate’ voters on the dynamics of a democratic process; the second, in early 2008, ‘actual’ campaigning. From the word go, DPT had some catching up to do so as to offset PDP’s head start.

During the first half of the campaign, DPT adopted a novel strategy -they went by the book!- and, in so doing, gained public confidence and reversed early PDP gains. At one rally after another, DPT’s president Jigmi Thinley, a consummate if reluctant politician, et al, drove home the norbu concept of the vote as bestowed on the people by the fourth king, and drummed in the message of their inviolability as voters. During this warm-up phase, interrupted by the month-long NC contest, and spilling over into 2008, the political climate simmered with bouts of mudslinging and allegations of electoral misconduct.

The campaign came and went; the jury was out. Conventional wisdom predicted a divided house, with the bourgeoisie behind DPT and the peasantry for PDP. The latter took two body blows late in the day with one of their candidates suspended and another publicly reprimanded by EC for electoral malpractice. Yet who was going to win was still anybody’s guess.

The Upshot Paradox – Tortoise Shell-Shock

As we all now know and none of us foresaw, DPT won by a landslide, sweeping 45 of the 47 seats. The ‘drop’ had grown indeed into an ‘ocean’, as Thakur S Powdyel, now minister of education, observed, in a wry dig at an eponymous campaign-period Kuensel headline that read: DPT drop in PDP ocean.

The two PDP ex-ministers lost, as did all but two of the party’s bright sparks. After a brief speechless spell, PDP reacted with an appeal to EC (later referred to the High Court, and since dismissed for lack of any hard evidence) on the “very strange developments” that occurred over the weekend just before polling day. This was in reference to a suspicion that, during the urban exodus to vote at rural polling centres, undue influence had been brought to bear leading to a last minute, massive swing against all estimates. The fact that the final percentages of votes for DPT vis a vis PDP (67 to 33) replicated a pre-election Kuensel online poll on party preference lent circumstantial weight to such misgivings.

The Post-Script Paradox – The Inscrutable Orientation

Bhutan’s democratisation began in 2006 with a shock and –despite some stray bomb blasts in between, which deterred an 80 percent voter turnout not a whit– came up with a stunner in 2008. In the fallout of the country’s first parliamentary elections, questions are being asked about the skewed winner-take-all electoral system -PDP received 33 percent of the votes but only four percent of the seats- and the merits of an alternate method of proportional representation. However, any attempt to explain the lop-sided electoral result, given the novelty of the experience, will be at best, at this juncture, an exercise in conjecture. With the decimation of PDP as an opposition party in parliament, the National Council’s 25 members assume an unanticipated Constitutional role: that of an oppositional check-and-balance in the eventuality of a “tyrannical majority”.

At the end of the day, it does seem that the people of Bhutan did not so much vote against change -represented by the gung ho PDP- as opt overwhelmingly for continuity as embodied by the establishmentarian DPT and its tried and tested team.

Which brings us to our last –but not least, in international eyes, at least- word: the so-called lhotsampa dimension, which the foreign media is inclined to regard as the Achilles heel of “the last Shangri-la”. The ‘issue’, made conspicuous by its absence, became a non-issue. A potentially divisive democratic process produced a uniform electoral result that unified the newly constitutionalised kingdom like super glue.



By John Michael Chiramal for Kuensel.

Click here to read this story on Kuensel.