Bhutan Votes – A Narrative

While many had predicted that the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) would form the government, taking into consideration the party’s performance in the primary round of the elections, there were very few who would put a wager on it. Elections are unpredictable, and if the people of Bhutan could send a new and young party like the Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP) to the general round, the possibility of people voting for BTP loomed over.

Nonetheless, the people have voted for the PDP, though it could not gallop as the party did in the primary round. The opposition has 17 members, a very formidable number.

Observers of the elections have put forth their analysis, with many saying that the elections saw a division amongst the electorate, with the eastern voters going for BTP and the West and South allying with the PDP. From the surface, every observer would think alike, as the PDP won in only one constituency of the East, while BTP swept over the other 16. In other words, the story that the PDP is “unwelcomed by the eastern voters” is being told by many people.

However, what should not be forgotten is the PDP’s performances in the former elections with the eastern voters in the background. During the 2013 general elections, eastern Bhutan had three ministers and a Speaker in the PDP government that was formed. This dispels the narrative that the PDP is not welcomed in eastern Bhutan. Further, the primary round of the current elections saw a majority of the eastern voters supporting the PDP. In the general elections too, BTP did not win with a landslide in the 16 eastern constituencies as the PDP candidates won in some constituencies of the South and the two under Chhukha district.

For instance, the PDP won 13,579 votes from the 33,253 votes cast in Trashigang district. It won 4,890 votes from the total of 12, 580 in Trashiyangtse and 5,238 from the 11,491 total votes in Lhuntse. It secured 10,650 votes from the 25, 320 total votes in Mongar. Even in Pemagatshel, it secured a total of 5,841 votes, high compared to the past. Thus, saying that the PDP is not “welcomed in the East” would be akin to saying that other parties cannot penetrate the South and the West as long as the PDP is there.

It could be said that supporters of the PDP did not shift allegiance and maintained their status quo through the two elections, while supporters of the three parties that failed to make it through the primary round had to choose one from the PDP and the BTP. The fact that BTP prevailed in the 16 eastern constituencies indicates that the party had the support of people who had voted for the other three parties in the Primary round, predominantly supporters of Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT). Nonetheless, it cannot be surmised that the same happened throughout the other parts of the country. BTP could not win even one seat in Zhemgang, considered a DPT stronghold. Nor could it win one of the seats in Bumthang. On the contrary, supporters of the other parties from these parts of the country and those in the West aligned with the PDP. Results in South Thimphu and Gasa are some of the examples.

The country witnessed the PDP campaigning on its experience of having former cabinet members in its fold. Similarly, we saw BTP saying that it also had former members of the parliament under its wings. However, the election results indicate that people do not consider this as a scale for assessment. Three former cabinet members of the PDP; representatives of Thrimshing-Kangpara, Kanglung-Samkhar-Udzorong, and Gangzur-Minje, fell in the East. Similarly, former members of the National Council (NC) who had joined the BTP; representatives of Jomotsangkha –Martshala, Bji Katsho, and Bongo Chapcha could not make it in the general round.

Despite the not-very-good show in the East, what has come out of the elections is the fact that political parties and candidates need to work hard at the grassroots as well as the postal ballots. The PDP deserves credit for this. Losing in the primary rounds in the 2018 elections was a lesson that the PDP learned. The loss was acute as PDP managed to secure 27.44 % of the votes, while DPT got 30.92% and Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) obtained 31.85 % of the votes. What hit PDP hard was the fact that DNT managed to get more of the votes that were shared between the two parties. Since then, the party has been working very hard. Keeping the flock together, party representatives have been moving on the grounds and strengthening it. While few of the candidates could not make it through during these elections too, figures indicate that they worked hard. The party has been rewarded for this.

On the other side, the coming of BTP in the national sphere will strengthen the legitimacy that the party has already obtained from the people of Bhutan. Winning 17 seats is a huge achievement for a party that turned one year on January 9, 2024. If BTP had won in the general round, it would have been a befitting birthday gift to the party from the people of Bhutan. Nonetheless, the party should find inspiration from the fact that it achieved what other new parties like the Bhutan Kyenyam Party (BKP), Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT) and the Druk Thuendruel Tshogpa (DTT) could not.

It would go without saying that the BTP will now have the 2029 elections in sight. For this, the party will need to further strengthen its base and work hard to ensure that it is embraced by people in all parts of the country. This is important as every party needs to first get through the primary round. BTP cannot wish that in 2029 too, it would get through the primary round as the second party and then depend on the unpredictable support from voters of other parties. It has to have a national presence, like the PDP does, and which PDP showed during the primary round. All calculations must be done keeping in mind other political parties like DPT, DNT and DTT. No one has officially closed shop and every party will be thinking about the 2029 elections. Five years is not long – it is only 10 sittings of the parliament!

Sherab Dorji from Thimphu