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How a new party trumped the ruling PDP in Bhutan's primary polls

Sep 19. 2018
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By Lamat R Hasan
Asia News Network

In its third election as a full-fledged democracy, Bhutanese came out in large numbers to oust the ruling People's Democratic Party run by Harvard-educated Tshering Tobgay.

Come October 18 and Bhutan will witness a close fight between one of its oldest political parties – Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) – and Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), a new party that has gained popularity in the recent past.

The tiny Himalayan kingdom – called Druk Yul in Bhutanese (Land of the Thunder Dragon) – is nestled between economic rivals China and India. It opened up to the world as late as the 1970s. Before Bhutan became a two-party parliamentary democracy in March 2008, the Wangchuck hereditary monarchy wielded power from 1907.

On September 15, Bhutanese came out in large numbers to oust the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) run by Harvard-educated Tshering Tobgay. This was Bhutan's third election as a full-fledged democracy, a decade after its fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decreed it.

Togbay, 52, who was hoping for a second consecutive term as prime minister, conceded defeat soon after the shock results were announced.

"The people of Bhutan have spoken. And the People's Democratic Party graciously accepts their decision. The will of the people must prevail in a democracy. I wish Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa and Druk Phuensum Tshogpa all the best in the general elections," he wrote on his Facebook page.

Even as the PDP president has cited anti-incumbency as the party's biggest challenge, speculations are rife that the civil service was not satisfied with the PDP government, which led to the party garnering less postal votes, Kuensel reported.

"While anti-incumbency remains a challenge for any party that forms the government, the party's supporters may have gone overboard in campaigning against other parties than in campaigning for the party. With a wise electorate, this strategy at least on social media bombed. The two parties that were criticised the most on social media won the primaries," the report said.

The Poll Process

According to Bhutan's constitution, only two political parties can take part in the final round of general elections.

In the four-cornered race this month, nearly 66 percent of the electorate cast their votes – a higher turnout than the 55.3 percent seen in the primary round in 2013.

Of the four parties in the primary phase, DNT bagged 31.5% of the votes, followed closely by DPT with 30.6%. The ruling PDP came a surprising third with 27.2%, getting knocked out of the final round of elections. The fourth party in the fray – Bhutan Kuen-Nyam (BKP) – secured only 9.7% of the total votes, Kuensel reported.

Bhutanese voted for change even as Tobgay, whose party held 32 seats in the National Assembly after the 2013 elections, had hoped another win.

DNT's leader Lotay Tshering, a surgeon, has become popular in the country by promising to focus on health issues. While the DPT held 15 seats in the National Assembly, political observers say Tshering may be the next prime minister.

The National Assembly of Bhutan or the lower house of Parliament has 47 members (maximum number of seats is 55). The National Council of Bhutan or the upper house of Parliament has 20 non-partisan members popularly elected by each dzongkhag (district) and five members are appointed by the King.

According to the constitution, religious heads are not allowed to contest polls and political parties are not allowed to align along regional, gender, language or religious lines. There are five registered political parties – the fifth being Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT).

However, there are a host of political parties operating in exile. In 2010 these exiled parties formed an umbrella group to pursue a unified democratic movement led by Rongthong Kunley Dorji, president of the Druk National Congress.

In their party manifestos, all parties speak of self-reliance, good governance and an end to corruption for its 8,00,000 citizens.

Bhutan and India

In contrast to the 2013 elections, Bhutan's relations with India did not figure prominently during the campaign by the four parties.

In the run-up to the last polls, Bhutan was hit by high fuel prices after India suddenly withdrew subsidies for kerosene and cooking gas.

Despite Indian denials, the perception persisted that New Delhi wanted to punish the ruling DPT. India was irked at then Prime Minister Jigme Thinley's meeting with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao at Rio de Janeiro in 2012, the Wire reported.

Five years later, India has not figured in the election manifestos, beyond the general political consensus that relations have to be strengthened.

It's odd as India and China – the fastest growing economies in the world – had it rough over Doklam, a stretch of 269 sq km sandwiched between India, Bhutan and China last year. India does not claim the territory but has a strong military presence in Bhutan.

India and China, who went to war in 1962, have disputed for decades over Doklam. The Doklam plateau is important for India as it connects it to its remote northeastern states, but China has been pooh-poohing India's concerns as this is a matter concerning Bhutan. India prevented Chinese border guards from building a road there last year, prompting Beijing to accuse it of trespassing on Chinese soil.

The Bhutanese reported the arrival of the Chinese soldiers in the area with bulldozers and excavators to build a high-mountain road near India's border in June 2017. The stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops at Doklam lasted more than 70 days.

Bhutan does not have diplomatic ties with China and coordinates its relations with Beijing through New Delhi. Bhutan is an important country for India and has always occupied a special place in its foreign policy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bhutan in 2014 and is likely to visit again after the new government is installed.

Bhutan and China

Beijing has made some significant overtures in recent years to build bridges with Bhutan. In July, China's Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou visited Bhutan. During his visit, the Chinese leader assured Thimphu of his government's commitment to resolve the China-Bhutan boundary dispute amicably. China has so far held 24 rounds of discussions with Bhutan for resolving the dispute.

Reports have suggested China has been putting pressure on Thimphu to accept a land swap deal that could bring Doklam under Beijing's control, posing serious security implications for India. Many observers in India believe China is not far from establishing full diplomatic relations with Bhutan, the Statesman reported.

Political observers hint that a political change in Bhutan might work to China's advantage.

Bhutan is far from being the happy nation as it is often perceived to be across the world. Its youngsters need more jobs and the advent of modern technology is corrupting it – crimes and corruption have gone up. Climate change is taking its toll in this country counted amongst the least developed by the United Nations.

Whether the new government comes to the rescue of this reluctant democracy which sold the idea of "Gross National Happiness" to the world remains to be seen.

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