Adventures in democracy

Travelers to Bhutan have a list of must-see tour sites: Taktsang; the Punakha dzong.  If they have enough time, Bumthang (“the Switzerland of Bhutan”).  But visitors to Bhutan during the spring of 2013, if they paid attention, were able to witness something even more special: campaign season in the world’s youngest democracy.

Several holidays were declared to allow for the three rounds of national elections.  Bhutan’s roads — winding, mountainous, prone to landslides — were busy as voters traveled to cast their ballots. Bhutanese citizens in certain occupations are eligible to vote by postal ballot.  All others must travel to their native districts (“dzongkhags”) to vote.  For some, this required two days of travel each way.  Most long-distance public buses were fully booked by voters making such electoral journeys.

Since 1907, Bhutan has been ruled by the five well-loved kings of the Wangchuck dynasty.  The Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, oversaw years of progress and development in Bhutan.  In 2005, in perhaps his ultimate act of change, the King granted democracy to his subjects.  Few kings not only willingly hand over power but do so at their own behest.  There was no public outcry for democracy prior to the King’s decree. A new Constitution followed, one that named the King as the titular head of state but that put control of the government squarely in the hands of democratically elected officials.  The First Parliament of Bhutan was elected in 2008.Bhutanese citizens headed for the polls again in 2013, completing three rounds of the national election of the Second Parliament. In the first round, held in April 2013, voters elected new members for the National Council, the upper house of Parliament.  The second round, in late May, was a primary election for the National Assembly, the lower house.  Four parties contended — a fifth party was ultimately disqualified from participation. (Political parties must run qualified candidates in all 20 districts and the eliminated party was unable to put up an approved candidate in the remote and lightly populated Gasa district.)  The two parties that won the primary advanced to the general election held on 13 July.

The parties and candidates in contention for this third and final election were familiar to Bhutanese citizens: The DPT (the Druk Phuensam Tshogpa, loosely translated as the “Peace and Prosperity Party”), held the majority in the First Parliament and the party’s president, Jigme Y. Thinley, served as the nation’s first Prime Minister.  The PDP (People’s Democratic Party) was the minority party (holding two of the 47 seats) and its president, Tshering Tobgay, served as the opposition leader.

A campaigning blackout was instituted 48 hours before the election, to give a rest to the candidates, the voters and the media. During those two days, news about the election was allowed but any information intending to influence the outcome was restricted.  Websites and social media outlets (like Facebook) were included in the blackout.  To further ensure a peaceful and orderly election, the weekly “dry day” (alcohol sales in Bhutan are banned every Tuesday) was extended to the days surrounding the election. The two gates between Bhutan and India were closed and the border sealed right before the election.  Voters were frisked outside their polling places to make sure the ban on weapons, cameras and cell phones was enforced.

Summer is the monsoon season in Bhutan and heavy rains affect much of the country. During the earlier rounds, many voters, undeterred by the weather, stood in long lines, braving downpours and leech-infested pathways to exercise their franchise. July is also a busy time for farmers in rural areas where paddy fields are an important part of the local economy.  Polling stations were set up in remote villages to help farmers, herders and nomads to cast their ballots.

Voter turnout for the July election was estimated at 66%, a particularly impressive figure in light of the travel challenges many voters faced.  Turnout for the last national election in 2008 was similarly high.  Victory in the general election was declared by the former opposition party, the PDP, which won 32 of 47 seats. Tshering Tobgay, the president of the PDP, is expected to be named the next Prime Minister. The DPT, with its 15 seats, will form a much larger opposition than existed in the First Parliament.  The former Prime Minister and several other ministers from the last parliament won their constituencies. Their numbers and experience should help create a vibrant opposition voice and help shape Bhutan’s still-emerging democracy.

Change is the order of the day in Bhutan. Citizens voted for change and turned the reins of the government over to new guardians.  Voters turned out in large numbers, embracing the democratic changes gifted to them by the King.  In a place like Bhutan, a place that seems to many outsiders to be frozen in time with its unique culture and unspoiled landscapes, change is perhaps unexpected.  And, yet, inevitable and here it is.

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