The 2023 political sojourn

The 2023 political sojourn

The Fourth National Assembly (NA) elections, slated for the end of the year will be different in many ways compared to the earlier ones, beginning from the number of political parties to candidates. New rules imposed by the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) add to making it unique.

If all political candidates get 47 members, there will be five parties contesting for the elections. Some say “more the merrier” and that the emergence of more parties means that Bhutan’s journey towards a vibrant democracy is on track. People will have more choice and there will not be much division as seen when there are two parties. However, there are others who say that five parties are too much for an electorate that had 485,811 registered voters in the National Council elections, held earlier this year of which 55 percent voted. Added on to it are the added costs that would be incurred.

Additionally, the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) has come up with a new set of ‘Rules on Elections Conduct in the Kingdom of Bhutan, 2022’ which has some new changes and additions in election rules.

The main change is in the qualifications to be a candidate for the National Assembly and the National Council elections. In addition to the existing rules of being at least 25 years of age and having a minimum of a Bachelors Degree, candidates have to have served in office in the public or private sector with exemplary conduct and performance for five years for the NA and 10 years for the NC. It means there will be no “inexperienced” NA member.

With a view to further strengthen the reviewing process, provisions to institute an Independent Evaluation Committee (IEC) were included in the Rules on Elections Conduct in the Kingdom of Bhutan, 2022. In keeping with the new rules, the party manifesto and campaign pledges shall be subjected to an evaluation by IEC. The evaluation process carried out by IEC will ensure that unrealistic or unreasonable parties’ manifestos and campaign pledges are strictly addressed. While there are critics on this, a local paper reported that the ECB, will not question their pledges, but will scrutinize if there are pledges that would be sensitive or against national interest and wayward promises that would attract interest of voters, but not achievable.

Postal ballots are another area. Unlike the 2018 elections, the ECB as of now has not said anything about facilitation booths. Moreover, postal ballots are provided to a selected few. During the NC elections, Bhutanese working abroad but not studying were not given postal ballot facilities. Similarly, there are several people including those working in the private sector who cannot avail postal ballot facilities.

This, people say will lead to fewer voters as everyone will not be able to go to their constituencies to vote, especially because of economic reasons. Additionally, people say it leads to electoral corruption as some parties can ferry supporters to vote, while others cannot. The question of a fair election arises here. 

The ECB also had to remind all political parties to strictly comply with the electoral laws and to avoid political campaigning during their familiarisation visits. In its letters to the presidents of political parties, the chief election commissioner stated that the commission would take stern action against a political party if it is established that the party has engaged in campaigning during the non-election period or violated the electoral laws.

The letter stated that political parties are gearing up for their activities to contest the historic fourth National Assembly elections. To ensure free, fair, and transparent elections, the ECB allowed political parties to carry out familiarisation visits and public consultation meetings based on their written applications.

Amidst the preparations, according to the letter, several reports are emerging on various social media platforms and at public gatherings that political parties are campaigning and violating electoral laws during their familiarization visits and consultation meetings.

On the other side, political parties said that the ECB says action would be taken only with relevant evidence and proof, which no one either seemed to have or did not want to complain. Questions were also asked about the thin line between familiarization, consultation, and campaign.

Voters are perplexed, too. There are several people who have relatives in different political parties. They do not know who to vote for. Similarly, there are gewogs from where all five political have candidates, who face the same problem.

Though hate speech and personal attacks have not yet appeared on social media vividly, it seems to be gaining ground. In a social media platform, the finance minister (FM) is heard explaining the claims of a political party saying they have already mobilized funds for development if they get the people’s mandate in the elections, is untrue. The FM is heard saying it is against the electoral laws.

But one point is crystal clear. Any party that comes to power and forms the government has a massive challenge – to bring the economy on the tracks. Further, the country is undergoing transformation in many spheres and the country needs a party that can deliver. We do not know which party would be the most capable. We also do not know who the people will vote for.

Nidup Lhamo from Thimphu