On April 20, 2023, eligible voters of the country will cast their ballots to elect their representatives to the National Council (NC), otherwise called as the Upper House or the House of review. The importance of the NC is reflected in Article 11, Section 2 of the Constitution, which states, “Besides its legislative functions, the National Council shall act as the House of review on matters affecting the security and sovereignty of the country and the interests of the nation and the people that need to be brought to the notice of the Druk Gyalpo, the Prime Minister and the National Assembly.”
However, a question that many need to ask is, whether we, the people, truly consider the NC as an important institution and give it the attention that it deserves. In the absence of any instrument to assess this, we have to use the voter turnout and juxtapose it with turnout for the National Assembly (NA) elections. It is not an encouraging picture.
The three phases of the NC elections in 2008, 2013 and 2018 saw a voter turnout of 53.05%, 45.15% and 54.3 % respectively. Compare it to the turnout in the NA elections in the respective years; in 2008 it was 79.38%; 55.27% and 66.13 % in the primary and general rounds of 2013 and 66.36% and 71.46% in the primary and general rounds of 2018.
Though not elucidated in the Constitution, voting is not only our fundamental duty but also our responsibility. This means that 197,495 of the registered voters did not take up this easy, yet significant responsibility during the 2018 NC elections, as only 234,535 from the 432,030 registered voters, voted.
People may say that voter turnout necessarily does not mean that voters do not consider the NC important. There may be other reasons. NC members do not have workers at the grassroots, who call out and encourage people to vote during the elections. NC members do not and cannot book buses and other vehicles to ferry voters to the polling stations. Nonetheless, the fact that people do not vote in the NC elections like they do for the NA elections is a concern. Due to this, it becomes very important for respective agencies like the election commission of Bhutan (ECB) to encourage and facilitate voting.
However, we are being told that the ECB would reduce the number of polling stations, though it is not very clear if this means reducing the number of facilitation booths in urban areas. While no scientific study has been carried out, the increase in the number of voters in the NC elections of 2018 could be attributed to the dozens of facilitation booths that the ECB opened in urban Bhutan. And this is important as a chunk of the voters, including the youth have made urban Bhutan their homes.
More than anyone, the ECB understands the importance of voting and thus the need to facilitate easy voting. Despite improved connectivity, not many will go to their villages on poll day as it entails expenses. And definitely not the majority of the youth, some of whom abhor voting as they need to wear the national dress. It thus becomes the responsibility of the ECB to facilitate and enable all voters to shoulder their responsibilities. More facilitation booths in urban Bhutan is a step towards it.