A step forward

Bhutan held its first-ever general election on Monday when nearly 80 per cent of its 318,000 registered voters cast their vote under a two-party system. The party of former prime minister, Jigme Thinley, has won 44 of the total 47 seats in the National Assembly (the Lower House of Parliament). The election marks a positive development that has ended the absolute rule of the 100-year-old Wangchuck dynasty in this mainly Buddhist nation of over 650,000 people. Thinley is almost certain to become the first elected Prime Minister of Bhutan. The other party, led by the present king’s uncle Sangay Ngedup, two-time former prime minister, was trounced. Both are pro-monarchical parties. Non-royalists have not been allowed to register as parties and to fight the election. The election — monitored by 42 observers from India, the European Union, and the US, among others — is the culmination of a process set in motion by the then King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 2001, which saw the promulgation of a new constitution in 2005 and the handover of his crown to his 29-year-old Oxford-educated son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in December 2006.

There are some good provisions in the constitution, for instance, those that seek to ensure probity of politicians and other public officials, such as the requirement for transparency of the political funds and for qualifications of candidates for elective posts. The punishments stipulated in certain cases may, however, appear to be too tough, including the dissolution of a political party. Bhutan’s present system, though a definite improvement over the replaced one, envisages a kind of guided democracy in which the king is still powerful — for example, he is the supreme commander of the armed forces; an oath of allegiance to him has to be taken by elected officials; though the executive powers of the state remain vested in a council, it is responsible to the king; and the king has the discretion of choosing from among a list of the persons recommended by specified panels to various constitutional posts

The present constitution is exclusive in nature, in that it does not provide real political opposition any space. This uncomfortable fact contains the seeds for dissatisfaction and future revolt. Besides, Bhutan’s armed rebels have vowed to step up their fight for ‘people’s democracy’. The monarchy cannot be questioned — neither the legislature nor the Bhutanese people are allowed to amend the constitution concerning the institution of the monarchy. Furthermore, the election was held while a sizeable chunk of Bhutan’s population has been forced to live in exile as refugees for more than fifteen years. There are also allegations that Thimphu denied tens of thousands of Bhutanese identity cards, and consequently the right to vote. Bhutan needs to do more by way of adopting inclusive policy towards all Bhutanese. This includes, of course, the repatriation of all Bhutanese refugees and allowing groups of various political creeds to function and compete freely.