Voters’ indifference on the rise?

Voting for the primary round of the fourth general elections has begun with those eligible for postal ballots casting their votes. However, there are a number of people who have become indifferent to which political party to vote for. And there are mainly two reasons – a loss of faith in the political parties and ignorance, especially amongst the youth. While this could directly impact the country’s transition to a vibrant democracy, it would also impact voter turnout and thus the legitimacy of the party that wins.

Referring to statements made by different political parties, a corporate employee who did not want to be named said political parties agree that there has been an erosion of trust and faith. “Why have people like me lost trust? It is because of the three former elections we had, where several pledges were made and left unfulfilled.” When asked about the achievements of the three former governments, he said that whatever was achieved were those that were included in the five-year plans. “Political parties have made distinct pledges, which were not fulfilled. The people are told only about their achievements, not their failures,” he said.

Tandin, a budding entrepreneur also expressed the same. “I do not think it matters which government comes to power. That is why I have neither read their manifestos nor watched the debates. Elections have become dirty and some parties are reportedly going all out to win,” he said. When asked if he would not vote for a party that claims it has been formed to restore trust and faith in the electorate, Tandin said, it is a “silver lining.” “However, if this party also goes along the lines that we have been talking about, the faith of all Bhutanese in the system will fully erode,” he said, adding that there are several people like him, who have developed an “indifferent attitude.” “If this continues, a day may come when very few Bhutanese will vote.”

What Tandin says strikes a chord with those who have begun casting their postal ballots. A public servant said that she does not even know who represents her constituency or the manifestos of the parties. “I voted for the party that my friend suggested me to do.” When questioned if it is not the duty of educated people like her to vote for the party that will best serve the country and people, she said that she thought so and did it thrice. “But all parties failed to deliver. Maybe this is the reason why people have been supporting new parties every time,” she argued.

On another side are the youth comprising of students, the unemployed, and the employed, who are not really concerned about voting. “Students in colleges should be told about the importance and need to exercise their franchise. They are ignorant,” Sonam Dorji, a supporter of a political party said. According to Sonam, most students do not even know the total number of parties. When we seek support, they ask, “What will we get?”

Sonam further added that most of the youth, who have not availed postal ballot facilities do not go to their villages to vote mainly due to financial reasons. “Without facilitation booths this time, I would say that voter turnout would reduce,” Sonam added.

While there are people like those referred to above, there are equally people dedicatedly working for respective political parties. A private employee, supporting one party is moving from office to office, requesting people to vote for the party he supports. “Some do not have the time to fill their postal ballots and then post it. So, I go to these people individually,” he said, adding there are other advantages. “Sometimes, you come across people you do not know and who have not decided or chosen a party. You just need to request them to vote for a party and they listen. There are also some who are not bothered about voting. They just tick a party that you tell them to and then give all documents to me for filling up along with their CID numbers.”

Meanwhile, the paper also found out that people vote for a party for different reasons, starting from relations to the manifesto, the party’s perceived image, leadership, and others. There are also some who have voted for a party because of peer pressure.

A teacher said that he read the manifestos of all five political parties before voting. “While most are similar, there are some differences, and based on it I cast my vote,” he said.

A civil servant based in Thimphu said he voted for a party as one of the candidates of the party is her brother.

Another mentioned that he looked at the candidates; their maturity and capability. “I know most of the candidates who were working in public offices that have joined politics. So I assessed the strengths of the party based on the candidates and voted.” When asked if experience is important or not, he said that parties have candidates who have served in public offices for more than two decades. “They may not have the experience of sitting in the parliament but they know Acts, rules and other required skills. It is just like a transfer from one office to another. Experience is not very important,” he said.

There were also others, like a driver of a public office, who said that he voted after looking at the Presidents of different parties.

In 2018, the total number of registered voters was 438,663, out of which 304,868 had registered at the EVM and 133,795 for the postal ballots. However, only 293,954 turned to vote; 182,518 at the EVM and 108,580 through the PB. The total voter turnout was 67.1 percent.

As of October 1, 2023, the ECB said that there are 496,836 eligible voters for the upcoming elections.

Dechen Choden & Pema Tshomo from Thimphu