The King of Bhutan has introduced a unique type of democratic process in Bhutan. The international community has already congratulated Bhutan (the King) on the “historic election” with the pre-conceived notion that genuine democracy has finally been introduced. Sadly, the basic tenets of democracy are totally absent in Bhutan. People are goaded to press the electronic voting Machine (EVM) and this process is no different to the voting system initiated by the Third King in 1953. Prior to voting, background details of each candidate are required to be submitted to the King. If there is the slightest chance of any candidate, having the potential to challenge the authority of the monarch in the future, his/her candidature is disqualified. A wooden box ballot contains the names of two contenders and people are required to vote ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. This practice was prevalent until 2006.
The first so-called ‘historic election 2007’ was conducted under a socio-political environment, where no fundamental human rights and democratic rights are recognized. It would be sacrilege to mention that the polling is conducted under ‘free and fair’ atmosphere.
Consider these facts – freedom of speech and expression is restricted; the freedom of press is banned; the assembly and association of people are banned; and so on and so forth. The King introduced a ridiculous and outrageous stipulation, as prerequisite eligibility, i.e., candidates aiming to contest the election to become a Member of Parliament (MP), must have a university degree of western education format. A large section of the population, endowed with experience and patriotism, are thus denied their inalienable democratic right to participate in politics and to become MPs.
The power of the Monarchy remains intact, as the National Constitution has no control over Monarchy. Can this practice be really called democratic? In universally accepted democratic practice, a multi-party system must exist. However, in Bhutan, only two political parties have been allowed to operate, both having close proximity to the palace.
One of these parties is People’s Democratic Party (PDP), headed by Mr. Sangay Nidup, maternal uncle of the King, and the second is Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) headed by Mr. Jigme Thinley, a matrimonial relative of the King.
The third party, Bhutan People’s United Party (BPUP) formed by Mr. Sigay Dorji, was disqualified/unregistered by the Election Commission on November 27, 2007, on the ground that this party doesn’t have the will, competence, experience, qualification and appropriate support to contest elections. In addition, all political parties in exile are banned. Obviously, the King will be amenable, if either of his ‘confidantes’ Jigme Thinley or Sangay Nidup becomes Prime Minister. Though, I have a feeling the King will prefer Singay Nidup for the Prime Minister’s Job.
The candidates, successfully elected, in this recent election for National Council, offer a prelude to the scenario that will be unfolding in the forthcoming National Assembly election.
The majority of them come from a bureaucratic background. Even two 26 year old young persons are “elected.” It is a matter of grave shame that inexperienced young persons are allowed to occupy seats in National Council. They would be overwhelmed, overpowered and dominated by the five nominees of the King.
The King’s most obedient, trusted, loyal and experienced personals, are still working under him. These people would be drafted in the Upper House. These nominees would undermine the true democratic ethos in the National Council. Being ‘yes men’ to the King, I have an apprehension that they will place the interest of Monarchy on a higher pedestal, compared to the interest of the public at large.
I foresee no change in legislations; they will continue to preserve the structures and systems that prevailed in absolute monarchy and protect Monarchial interests. Even the losing candidates would be eventually drafted back into the bureaucratic setup. The only discernible change in election is – the wooden ballot has graduated to Electronic Voting Machine.
Can this practice be called the dawn of democracy in Bhutan?
There were sporadic revolts against the Fourth King since 1974 and most rebels were arrested in their early stages. However, the 1990s witnessed the first full-fledged revolt against the King by Lhotshampas and certain sections of Sharchopa. It demonstrated that 70 percent of the population resented and disapproved of the King’s policies.
The aftermath of rebellion resulted in human rights abuses and atrocities, on a large scale. Relatives of rebels are barred from participating in the current democratic election; in fact, they are always under government surveillance. The political prisoners of the 1997 eastern Bhutan uprising continue to be incarcerated and there is no ray of hope for their release so far. The democratic voting rights of monks, Gomchen, Anim are denied.
Are they not Bhutanese citizens? Is this a democracy?
The familiarization tour by PDP and DPT throughout country has garnered enough action. The people, villages, districts and perhaps regions too, are sharply polarized on party lines. Discord and friction within family are created. Both political parties are engaged in wooing voters by offering bribes in the forms of cash and kind. The Election Commission has failed to live up to its promise to root-out the corruption in electoral practice. In fact, the King, Election Commission and political parties made a mockery of the Constitution.
For the last hundred years, the people of Bhutan have been ruled by the King, like animals. Therefore, I once again ask – Are Bhutanese willing to live yet another animal life by meekly submitting to the King’s anti-people and anti-democratic polices? When the King agreed to become a Constitutional Monarch, it was expected that he would be remorseful for his past misdeeds and would therefore usher in true democratic reforms. But now, it appears, he is incorrigible, remorseless and utterly cold-hearted.
These democratic reforms are only aimed at ensuring that Bhutan remains in the iron-grip of the Royal family and the Royal family continues to accrue all the benefits, as if Bhutan is the personal estate of the King. We, the people of Bhutan, should know that all of us are equal to King. Destiny of the monarchial institution rests in the peoples’ will. Democracy in Bhutan, at present, exists only on paper. True democracy must be enjoyed by the entire population, rather than a few privileged ones.
The Druk National Congress reiterates its resolute stand that we will wage a relentless non-violent struggle against the present form of ‘democracy’, till it is transformed into an inclusive genuine democracy. The Druk National Congress has re-drafted the Constitution encompassing all democratic aspirations.
Though our expectation from the King is minimal, yet the Druk National Congress continues to harbor a feeble hope that there is still some time for the King to re-correct the current undemocratic process. If the King wants to ensure the longevity of his monarchial institution, the onus lies in his present course of action. Kings must know the universal truth – in order to enjoy benefits, other people must also be supplemented with the same benefits. Druk National Congress warns, if Bhutan falls into the grip of disturbances, unrest, instability and anarchy in the near future, only the King will be responsible.
Rongthong Kuenley Dorji is President, Druk National Congress, New Delhi, India.
By Rongthong Kuenley Dorji