Defeat in bye-elections bad for opposition?

The opposition has lost four by-elections in a row so far

The opposition party or the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) was out of luck for the fourth time. The setback suffered by the opposition in the Khamdang-Ramjar constituency bye-election in Trashiyangtse on February 3 was its fourth consecutive defeat.

Many are, therefore, questioning whether DPT is losing its voters based in the east.

Meanwhile, bye-elections were held in Chhoekhor-Tang constituency in Bumthang, Mongar constituency, Nganglam constituency in Pemagatshel and Khamdang-Ramjar constituency in Trashiyangtse. All these constituencies were traditionally considered strongholds of the DPT. 

The recent defeat does not seem to have hurt the opposition, but the party has not only been crushed by the government, but has also lost by a wide margin in almost all bye-elections held so far. 

The successive defeats of the opposition could have consequences, but MP Dr Passang Dorji of the DPT from Bartsham-Shongphu constituency in Trashigang said the defeat of the opposition party in the bye-elections does not mean anything or indicate anything about the outcome or result of the future elections. 

“If the opposition party loses the bye-elections, it means that people are becoming more mature. People have reasons to vote for the ruling party because they believe that the ruling party can do better than the opposition. Now it is up to the ruling party to deliver on its promises and up to the voters to see whether the party can deliver on its promises or not,” he said.

He also said it is the responsibility of the electorates to hold the parties accountable for their promises. 

“We are not worried at all. If you look at the statistics around the world, it is rare that the opposition party wins in bye-elections. Elections are about forming a government and people are clear which party is involved in the government. Voters vote for the ruling party in the hope that the ruling party will deliver more,” said MP Dr Passang Dorji.

He also said that lost by-elections say nothing about future elections. “Future elections will not be a bye-election but a choice about which party will form the government and that people will exhaust their collective wisdom,” he said. 

“People have known three different governments. Now it is up to the people to see which party performed the best and future elections will be based on that but not on which party won the bye-elections,” he said. 

Meanwhile, the opposition party won a by-election in 2013 and lost another in 2016. 

In 2013, DPT won the by-election in Nanong Shumar constituency in Pemagatshel, but lost the bye-election in North Thimphu constituency in 2016.

The general secretary of the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), Phurba said the reason for DNT’s victory in all the bye-elections was the potential and ability of the candidates fielded for the by-elections.

“Also because the DNT is the ruling government and the voters may have been satisfied with the government’s performance, which is why the voters preferred the DNT candidates in the bye-elections,” he said. 

The by-elections 

The Khamdang-Ramjar constituency in Trashiyangtse had remained vacant since November 15 last year after former MP Kuenga Loday resigned. The MP was sentenced to five years in prison by the Trashiyangtse dzongkhag court on August 14 for illegally constructing a road in a restricted area. 

Karma Gyeltshen of DNT won the Khamdang-Ramjar bye-election held on February 3 against his opponent Jigme Tashi of DPT.

The bye-elections for Mongar constituency in Mongar and Nganglam constituency in Pemagatshel were held on June 29, 2021. 

Former Home Minister Dasho Sherub Gyeltshen (the MP from Mongar constituency) resigned on May 6, 2021 after being sentenced to two months in prison by the larger bench of the High Court for claiming a false motor insurance policy worth Nu 226,546. 

Subsequently, Karma Lhamo, representing DNT for Mongar constituency, won against her opponent Dorji Youden, the candidate from DPT. 

The late Nganglam MP, Choida Jamtsho of Pemagatshel, died on the night of April 18, 2021 after consuming a curry made from a wild plant at Baelangdra, Wangduephodrang leaving the constituency vacant.

Karma Dorji of the DNT was then elected MP for the Nganglam constituency in the bye-election after defeating Richen Pelzang of DPT.

The Chhoekhor-Tang constituency in Bumthang became vacant when former opposition leader Pema Gyamtsho (PhD) resigned on September 7, 2020. The bye-election was held on November 19, 2020.

The DNT fielded its 2018 candidate, Dawa, against the candidate from DPT, Tenzin Norbu. Dawa won the bye-election.

In 2016, the MP for North Thimphu, Kinga Tshering of DPT, submitted his resignation to pursue study at Harvard University in the US. 

Views of the people

Business Bhutan interviewed people, who follow politics closely, and some agreed that the attractiveness of each candidate must have played a role in the by-elections.

However, many believe that the ruling government’s factor was the main reason for the government’s victory in the by-elections to date. 

Gopilal Acharya, a senior freelance journalist, said that the constituencies have traditionally been a DPT’s forte, but it looks like the DNT is able to make good inroads in some of these places.

“Take Nganglam, for example. The ruling party always has the better chance in the by-elections, but you never know. One thing is for sure though that losing a seat here would be a big blow to the opposition,” he said. 

An independent filmmaker said the DPT’s consecutive losses in the by-elections should definitely be a cause of concern for DPT.

“The trend is clear that people are voting for the ruling party because of the visible advantages offered by the ruling party over the limited advantages offered by the opposition. There seems to be a clear understanding among the electorates and perhaps among the DPT supporters that there are more benefits to supporting the ruling party than the opposition,” he said. 

He also said that this, however, cannot necessarily be taken as the beginning of the end of DPT as a political party.

A lecturer requesting anonymity said the DNT won the bye-elections because it is currently the government and people believe they could at least get some benefits from it.

“I suspect that the DPT will not last much longer. Every five years people learn a new lesson and the demographic trend (I would rather not say tradition) is changing; even I doubt the next term of the DNT,” he said.

Sonam, a businesswoman based in Thimphu, said that it is simple; voters voted for the candidates of the present governing party with a hope to get something in return.

“Irrespective of who the candidate is, what matters is who will benefit the most,” she said.

Chencho Dema from Colombo