Bhutan’s upper parliamentary chamber, the National Council, has been in the headlines these days. All for the good reasons, of course. The house is gearing towards the third parliamentary election that will be held on April 20. Twenty of the 25 members will be elected from the single member constituency — 20 Dzongkhags. It is encouraging to see that the number of aspiring candidates that had filed their nomination to the Election Commission of Bhutan has increased compared to the past elections.
The bicameral parliamentary system under which Bhutan is government today is around 10 years old. The 25-member National Council – 20 elected members and five eminent member appointed by His Majesty the King has both legislative and review functions and is also referred to as the House of Review. The apolitical house checks on the legislative decisions taken by the more powerful lower house – the National Assembly.
Today, the National Council spends considerable amount of its time scrutinising legislation passed from the National Assembly, where most of the laws start their legislative journey. The house also initiate or prepare legislation except money and financial bills; review and amend existing laws; and consider, pass, amend or reject any legislation passed by the National Assembly. The members also review policies, plans and programmes of the government and issues of national importance. For these and other works, the National Council of Bhutan Act 2008 provides a lot of privileges and immunities to a member. A member also draws around Nu 75,000 as monthly salary and enjoys other financial perks.
Thus the member of National Council does several valuable jobs: providing a calmer, more reflective forum than the members of National Assembly; scrutinising policy with a long-term view, rather than the electorally focused perspective of politically affiliated member of national assembly; acting as a store of wisdom and experience acquired in their office and other areas of public life.
Nonetheless, this esteem house is becoming a place for the unemployed to start their career and many citizens feel that it should change. Although the Constitution of Kingdom of Bhutan allows a Bhutanese citizen who is a registered voter of a constituency, in a age range of 25 and 65, with a formal university degree, and who doesn’t belong to any political party can contest for the post, the mandate of the National Council is larger than what these fresh, out of university, youths think of. The common complaints are that young members with no experience in the legislation (average of incumbent NC in 2013 was 40, oldest 54 and youngest 25) could enable the politicians to push their agenda through.
During the current parliament, the government tried to move the house in that direction with their BBIN-MVA, but the NC was somehow able to block it. For the first time the National Council, in 2017, rejected a Money Bill, on the grounds of doubts and vague intentions. The government was however able to pass the bill through a joint sitting.
We believe that the National Council would be able to do better job with members with experience in various fields. It is good to see that this time a good number of aspiring candidates in their 50s are coming out to contest for a seat in the National Council. It is time that the voters cast their votes to the candidate’s accumulated expertise creating a good rival to the member of the political parties that forms the government. This said, the candidate have greater ties to ordinary people, in the same time retain the wider wisdom that is so valuable while discharging their duty as Member of Parliament in the National Council. We hope that his ideas receive the fair hearing they deserve.
(The writer is a freelance journalist)