July 13, 2013, just a few days away, will mark the second General Election in Bhutan since His Majesty the Druk Gyalpo handed over the reins to democracy in 2008.
After nearly a year of living here and witnessing two national elections in the run up to Saturday’s runoff election for the seats of the National Assembly, there is still a lot that I don’t know about elections and politics in Bhutan. There are a lot of rules defined in the constitution and in multiple laws, and many other rules that are defined on an ongoing basis by the Election Commission of Bhutan (the ECB). Based on conversations with friends and colleagues, incessant news coverage over the past six weeks, the usual twitterati slander and a little bit of reading of the constitution, I have managed to learn a bit.
Here are ten things you might not know about Bhutan’s elections:
1) There are three National elections in 2013, not just one. In its constitution, Bhutan allows for multiple political parties, but mandates that the National Assembly be a bipartisan body, ostensibly to avoid a coalition that is unable to form a government. Therefore, there was a primary election on 31 May in which four parties contested: the ruling Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (DPT), the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and two new parties, Druk Nymrub Tshogpa (DNT) and Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT). DPT and PDP will compete in the runoff election on July 13. Prior to the partisan National Assembly elections was the apolitical National Council (upper house) election held on 23 April, before political campaigning began.
2) The first democratically elected Prime Minister was not the first Prime Minister. Despite being a Monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan had its first Prime minister or Lyonchen appointed in 1952. The post was then abolished from 1964-1998. It was then reinstated as a one-year rotating position elected by the Royal Advisory Council, precursor to the National Council that was established in 2008. Jigme Y Thinley was Lyonchen twice from July 1998 – July 1999 and August 2003 – August 2004. Jigme Y Thinley was then democratically elected in the country’s first National Election in 2008 with the DPT Party. More here.
3) There is no head-to-head debate between the two party Presidents. In the run up to the General Election, debates are conducted by constituencies, meaning that local representatives face off on a regular basis, both at ‘common forum’ events organised by the ECB and on televised debates on Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS). The party Presidents, not being from the same constituency, therefore do not debate head to head. They did interact directly in a televised debate prior to the Primary Election when there were four competing parties.
4) A parliamentary electoral system means that constituencies matter more than total votes. Of the 47 National Assembly seats being contested, 54 were held by the previous government (DPT) while only two were held by the opposition (PDP). Despite appearances, PDP actually received 33% of the popular vote in 2008, so if they want to win, they will need to ensure their voter distribution is better than last time. Interestingly, in a mock election held in April 2007, mock “parties” were given colours and values. The Druk Yellow Party standing for culture and tradition won by a landslide. Yellow also happened to be the royal colour, and voters were still reluctant to dismiss their benevolent rulers.
5) Monks can’t rock the vote. The Constitution mandates that religion and religious figures are to remain “above politics”, meaning that monks, nuns and other clergy are not allowed to vote or run for office. In a country with an estimated 70,000 monks, this removes 10% of the potential voting body. Interestingly, the laws prohibiting monastics from voting were more ambiguous until the law was changed in the run up to local elections in 2011. As one source put it, “Preventing monks and nuns from voting means taking away from communities the many voices of moderation, peace, compassion and happiness that the monastics represent.”
6) Government employees must leave office in order to run for political office. This rule is presumably designed to prevent civil servants or anyone employed by the Government from having a political affiliation while in a government position. The challenge is that even a candidate who loses an election, or fails to make it past the primary election, is not allowed to retake their position for the period of one year. Of the four contending parties, this means that some 200 college-educated aspiring politicians will be ineligible to work for the government or even state owned enterprise until July 2014.
7) The only women in the National Council were appointed by the King. The National Council is the apolitical upper house which has 25 members. 20 of these are elected to represent the 20 Dzongkhags, or states in the country. In addition, five seats are appointed by His Majesty. In 2008, there were 6 women in the National Council, four of which were elected. In this year’s National Council election on April 23, the four incumbent women were voted out of office, even though a majority of voters were women. It turns out that most of the incumbent men were also voted out of office, and the local papers quoted female voters saying that they were simply voting for the best candidates, who happened to be male. Of the 94 candidates in Saturday’s election, only 10 are female.
8) Less than 2% of voters will vote based on party and candidate pledges. This was a survey carried out online by the Kuensel (the country’s largest newspaper) with 1,300 respondents,. As there is limited access to internet in rural areas, it is unlikely that the survey presents a statistically significant cross section of the population. It is still interesting to note that in only five years of democracy, the computer literate elite have already figured out that campaign promises are not the best measure of the future reality, whereas 42% of those polled will base their decision on the candidates themselves.
9) Of 381,790 registered voters in the country, 80,000 voters registered by post. Because of the country’s rough topography and narrow network of roads, voters returning to their villages to vote can take up to a week each way. I recently spoke to a driver here in Thimphu who is from Sakten. Because he has land there, he is reluctant to change his voting registration to Thimphu. His options are either to take three days of busses to Trashigang and then walk two days to his village, or apply for a postal ballot. Election officials, supported by the army and a medical team, must trek for 7 days to get the voting machines to the remote village of Lunana in the North.
10) Citizens will wear National Dress and vote using electronic voting machines (EVMs). On Election Day, voters must wear national dress, gho and kira. They also must show up to the polls sober and without any weapons (a patang or machete knife is normally carried by Bhutanese men in the pocket of their gho, especially in rural areas). As an additional security measure, the border to India was closed for 24 hours during the primary round, and will likely be closed again during the general election. Voting will take place at 450 polling stations across the country. The implication of electronic voting is that the majority of votes can be tallied immediately after the polls close at 5 PM on Saturday. During the day, election officials in local constituencies will also be hand counting the postal votes.
As polls and forecasts are banned by the ECB, the only indication of voter preferences are the results from the Primary Election (44.5% DPT, 32.5% PDP, 17.0% DNT and 5.9% DCT) combined with the rampant speculation of who from DNT and DCT will favour PDP over DPT. The General Election is expected to have a higher turnout than the Primary Round, so this could influence the results as well.
The only way to find out will be to watch the results come in on Saturday evening on BBS or on the Kuensel website. Better yet, follow the local news on twitter: @kuensel, @newsbhutan, @BBSBhutan @BHTFlashNews @BhutanRaven as well as on the Parties’ official accounts: @bhutanpdp and @DrukDPT.