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Bhutan's way to democracy

Bhutan’s democratisation process has steadily progressed

Please follow the links below to read the Election Observations Reports from 2011 and 2008.

Election Observation Report 2011 PDF
Election Observation Report 2008 PDF

Bhutan's way to democracy

Bhutan’s first democratic parliamentary election was conducted on March 24 2008. For the first time the Bhutanese voters went to one of the country’s 865 polling stations in order to elect 47 members for the National Assembly (the lower house). The National Assembly forms the party-based part of Bhutan’s new democratic parliament. The election of 20 individual members for the National Council was already conducted on December 31 2007 and January 29 2008, in addition to which the King nominated five members. All of the international election observers announced that they were pleased with the conduct of the elections, and so too was the EU’s Election Observation Mission and the Representation Office of Denmark in Thimphu. 

The election campaign for the Parliament was played out between the only two approved parties in Bhutan, namely “People’s Democratic Party” (PDP) and “Druk Phuensum Tshogpa” (DPT). Among the total 94 nominated candidates in the 47 constituencies 10 were women. The election was conducted in a peaceful manner without interruptions and with a very high voter turnout almost amounting to 80%. Due to a number of minor bomb explosions in the weeks prior to the election it was, however, feared, that militant groups with connections to refugee camps in Nepal would try to demonstrate their discontent with the election process.
DPT won the election with a surprisingly good result. Despite the fact that PDP in total achieved 33% of the 253.012 votes, they only won two seats in the National Assembly, while DPT got 67% of the votes but getting 45 of the total 47 seats. DPT’s landslide victory to a large extent had to do with the election system with majority voting system and single-member constituencies, which always favours the winner. There are no supplementary mandates that pick up the “lost” votes. When looking at the overall picture it is clear that voters all over the country to an unexpected degree have voted for a political party, and to a much lesser extent have taken into consideration the qualifications of the individual candidates. All DPT’s candidates have solid experience, among them are five former ministers, public servants and highly educated people.

The high election turnout provides the recent democratically elected parliament with a high degree of legitimacy within the population, not least because the high election turnout for many has involved substantial economic expenditures. When looking at the observations made on the polling stations, and the registered number of voters (161.169 women against 157.296 men in a country with a male population surplus), it can be claimed that female voters are the most political active. The election result should, however, be scrutinized closely due to the very small opposition, which now has to take an active share in the National Assembly’s committee work with only two delegates. The participation and the administrative approval of only two parties was also not foreseen by the Constitution Commission. At the same time a critical eye should be cast on ECB’s (Election Commission of Bhutan) strict management of a number of areas in relation to the election. Among these areas was the handling of the approval of the candidates, election themes and language usage. On the part of language usage, it can be noted that only Dzongkha (the official language in Bhutan) and English were accepted in the printed material. Conclusively it can be argued that the historical transition from monarchy to a parliamentary and constitutional democracy will not be fully implemented and future-proof unless the people who are entitled to vote includes everybody, who feel and are being recognized as Bhutanese. As a matter of fact DPT has actually, in their election program, stressed that the question concerning the people in the refugee camps in Nepal has to be raised by the new government.

His Majesty the 5th King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, has, since December 2006, been the Head of State after his father, HM the 4th King Jigme Singye Wangchuck who ruled from 1972. To the surprise of many Bhutanese, the 4th King resigned in 2006, and at only 28 years the present King was made the world’s youngest monarch. HM the 5th King is educated in USA and Oxford, and like his father he has a modern view on Bhutan and the reforms that he sees as necessary for the development of the country. It was his father, who initiated the democratisation process in 1998 with the agreement that the King will reign in collaboration with the government, the National Assembly and the Royal Advisory Council. Bhutan’s 5th King has, on April 11 2008 after the parliamentary election, appointed the new democratic parliamentary-based government. All 11 members of the government and the chairman of the National Assembly are from DPT. The result of the elections presents the parliament and the newly appointed government with the great challenge to function in a de-facto national elected one-party system with an opposition that will only express itself through the media, the few members of the National Assembly and the emerging civil society. These challenges lay ahead for the new government led by DPT’s party President Jigmi Y. Thinley, former prime minister and foreign minister from 1998-2003.

Bhutan’s democratisation process has steadily progressed. The new democratic constitution was, after a serious and thorough debate, enacted by the newly elected parliament, and signed by the King on July 18 2008. Not only does the constitution ensure that Bhutan is considered a democratic country by the international community, but it also takes into consideration Bhutan’s unique culture and historical background. The final draft for the country’s first democratic constitution from August 2007 formed the foundation for the elections that were carried out in 2007 and 2008. The new constitution clearly describes the fundamental civil rights for all Bhutanese citizens. Among other things these rights imply equal justice under the law and free education for all children. Access to further education based on qualifications is also clearly specified. The constitution appears as having no significant shortcomings – on the contrary, it encompass provisions not often seen, as for example the age limit of 65 years for the Kings retirement, prohibition against capital punishment, and protection of the environment with the requirement that minimum 60% of Bhutan should be covered by forest at all times.