An Epistle to the ECB

On April 20, 2023, the country will witness elections to the Fourth National Council (NC). However, with the election commission of Bhutan (ECB) reducing the number of polling booths, doing away with facilitation booths and changing eligibility of those who can vote through postal ballots, there are concerns that voter turnout would fall. Additionally, the probability of money power playing a big role leading to electoral corruption are concerns expressed by different sections of the electorate. 

As per announcements from the ECB, only civil servants, members of the armed forces, students, and employees of Druk Holdings Investment’s (DHI) companies are eligible for postal ballots. The others need to go to their villages. The argument is that unlike the past, accessibility has improved and that with the ECB having conducted several rounds of voter education, people should have understood the importance of votes. Thus, people should go to their villages and vote.

It is a sound argument. However, there are several factors at play, especially when voters need to travel hundreds of kilometers to exercise their fundamental right and duty. As mentioned by manager of a hotel in Thimphu, everything ultimately boils down to costs. He had decided to vote. He wants to vote. But financial issues are a deterrent and he cannot go all the way to Trashiyangtse.

The same is cited by vendors at Kaja Throm in Thimphu, who say they know the importance of voting. On one hand is their daily bread and on the other participation in the democratic process. Most have decided to go for the former.

The ECB is right that accessibility to villages have improved compared to the past. But the economic status of the urban poor, private sector employees who can hardly meet their ends and the unemployed who are eligible to vote have not improved. Instead, this status has deteriorated because of the Covid 19 pandemic. Guides of the tourism industry are a good example.

We are cognizant of the fact that Bhutan continues to witness Rural-Urban migration. Gungtong is a national issue, which means that most of those eligible to vote are in urban Bhutan, especially the capital. Most are those working in the private sector. Their earnings are meager. Will they travel to their villages to vote?

A recent report by the National Statistical Bureau states that youth unemployment reached 28.9 % in 2022. 35.6% are in urban Bhutan and Thimphu is home to 39.8 %. While the definition of youth is those between 15-24 years, the NSB’s report indicates that there are youth in urban Bhutan who are above 18 but unemployed. Will they go to their villages to vote?

Unlike the National Assembly (NA) elections, where there are representatives of different political parties in all 47 constituencies, the NC does not have representatives contesting from all gewogs in a district. Eligible voters from gewogs who have no representatives, especially the economically under privileged do not see any incentive to press the EVM button. They understand that they need capable representatives, but they are left with no choice due to economic reasons.

Public participation, through voting is the lifeblood of a democracy. People need to elect capable representatives and vote out those who are not. But what if many or most people don’t turn out to vote? 

This does not mean that no one will go to their villages. The economically empowered and relatives and friends of candidates would definitely take the journey. And there is another group – those who will be ferried by candidates who have the economic means. This is an open secret and though not permitted under law, it happens as there are always means to break if not bend the laws. Sources say that it happened even during the recent Dhamgnoi Zomdue. This undermines the principle of a free and fair election. It opens the doors of electoral corruption.

Additionally, the percentage of people who have migrated to urban Bhutan looking for better opportunities from different districts and gewogs vary. Some gewogs have very few eligible voters residing in the villages, while there are more in others. Representatives from the former stand to lose, if their supporters cannot take the long journey from urban Bhutan. This too, is not fair and the same was conveyed by an aspiring candidate of the NC, who said that he stands at a position of advantage.

The ECB is going by the books. However, rules and Acts should evolve with time; the very reason why the Civil Service Rule, Tourism Levy Act, Property Tax and others were amended. And to quote from Chairman of the Constitution’s Drafting Committee, former Chief Justice Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye’s “The Constitution of Bhutan Principles and Philosophies,” in relation to Article 24, Section 6 of the Constitution: “Bhutan is evolving and so are its people. The communities are changing and we are changing. Thus, it follows that institutions and the way people participate in these institutions must also evolve. ………The Election Commission should have the flexibility and dynamism to respond to changing situations while conducting elections……….Delegation of this power to the Election Commission will facilitate the Bhutanese electoral system to respond progressively to changing and unforeseen situations in the future.”

This is something that the ECB did in the 2018 NC elections, which witnessed a record turnout of 54.3 % of the total registered voters. 64,912 people voted through postal ballots.

The ECB continues to play a very important role in Bhutan’s journey to become a vibrant democracy. It has always stood up to challenges confronted and succeeded. Thus, this is neither an attempt to smear the ECB, nor to say that the Commission is straying away from what it ought to do.

The ECB definitely will have its reasons. However, this is a piece written on the behest of scores of people who reached out; the old, recovering patients; private sector employees who cannot avail leave; parents of school going children; those worried about safety while traveling and others; requesting and entreating to convey their messages to the ECB. This is a product churned with the belief that the media is the bridge between the people and different government agencies, the voice of the people.

It is the people’s epistle to the ECB.