The Postal Ballot Dialogue

Action to follow after valid complaints; ECB

As the 2023 elections draws nearer, allegations of misconduct by political parties are increasing. It begins with accusations that political parties are campaigning in the name of consultation and that there is no uniformity in the rules and regulations imposed by the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB). Following this, the ECB on 5th August issued a notification stating that it has come to the attention of the ECB that election-related allegations are emerging in various social media platforms.  

The notification also states that it is the responsibility of every citizen of Bhutan to understand that labeling unsubstantiated allegations can lead to defamation and create disharmony in our small, close-knit society. Additionally, the ECB has maintained that if one has established wrongdoing or violation of the electoral laws, it “strongly urges such individuals to come forward and report the matter.”

In a nutshell, it means that the ECB will take action upon receipt of complaints from individuals, political parties, and the media, none of which seems to have happened.

Speaking about the role of the people, political parties, and media to bring to light such allegations with concrete evidence, a political observer from Olakha, Tandin Wangchuk said it is disheartening to see everyone washing off their hands. “Some political parties are reportedly naming, shaming and even saying what they will do if they win. This is not a campaign period and it is a joint responsibility to bring this to the light of the ECB,” he said, adding it is not about “complaining” but about “electoral integrity,” where everyone has a role to play.

On ECB stating that only upon complaints can action be taken, Tandin said that from the legal point of view, “it appears like an acceptable reason.”

“However, social media is rife with pictures of political parties on different types of tours and allegations by people. In such a case, I think ECB also has the responsibility to cross-check if the allegations are true or not. It would be wrong for the ECB not to play a proactive role,” he said, adding ECB officials are there in all districts.

Sonam Dorji, an aspiring politician from Trashigang who is based in Thimphu said the issue could be because no one wants to complain. “Perhaps, political parties do not want to rub the shoulders of one another by complaining, and people at the grassroots, irrespective of what political party they support will also not lodge complains for fear and concerns of retribution,” he said. Sonam added that complaints mean producing videos or audio of politicians speaking. “I do not think ECB will accept complaints where people say that in one meeting or the other, a candidate of a political party said something.” Sonam further underlined that there is a very thin line between familiarization, consultation, and campaigning.

On ECB’s notification that only the candidate of a constituency can accompany the President or Vice President, Sonam said it has come very late. “I believe political parties received this notification recently after political parties have covered almost the whole of Bhutan. When there were no issues in other districts, issues perhaps arose in one district; which shows the lack of uniformity,” he said. “Perhaps no one complained in other districts.”

Sonam also says that the media should do something. “I see media just reporting on the declaration of candidates only. This is the reason why social media is very active and may be the media also wants to play good, thus forgetting the greater good.”

On the need for ECB to be proactive and investigate based on allegations, Sonam replied that if a party is seen doing it repeatedly, the ECB has to investigate. “Should ECB continue waiting for complaints,” he said. 

Meanwhile, ECB’s notification also states “The ECB will act firmly based on the severity of the case.”  As a result, actions can involve penalties and removal of the political party or candidate from competing in elections.

The public notification stated, “It must be noted that the ECB has been issuing approval to Political Parties to carry out familiarization visits and consultation meetings, based on their written applications.

However, all Political Parties are clearly reminded that during such visits and meetings, they are not permitted to engage in any form of political campaigning. All Political Parties have also been informed that political campaigning can only commence from the date notified in the notification calling the NA elections, 2023.”

As the National Assembly elections draw nearer, advocacy efforts to inform and create awareness among citizens on electoral processes and procedures have been stepped-up through various channels. Recently, a Training of Trainers (ToT) Programme covering Civic and Voter Education and Dispute Settlement System was carried out for all 20 Dzongkhags in the month of July, 2023. Shortly, Dzongkhag Election Offices will be carrying out Civic and Voter Education in the Gewogs and Chiwogs, to create awareness among voters at the grassroots level, starting in the second week of August.

Sangay Rabten from Thimphu