Registration has not yet opened and the number is likely to change.
But the number of candidates aspiring to contest in the upcoming National Council elections indicates an encouraging start to the election season, at least in terms of choice.
A total of 128 candidates, including seven females from 20 dzongkhags, have registered with the Election Commission of Bhutan to attend a seminar on election rules. While the number excludes incumbent members, the fresh lot that has expressed interest to contest for a seat in the house of review is the highest the country may have seen to date.
When the country went for its first elections to National Council, the elections were conducted in two phases due to lack of candidates from five dzongkhags. The first phase in December 2007 saw 15 dzongkhags going to the poll and the second poll was held in January 2008 for the remaining five dzongkhags of Gasa, Haa, Lhuentse, Trashiyangtse and Thimphu. There were 52 candidates including six females contesting in the first National Council elections.
In 2013, the commission registered 67 candidates including four females contesting for the second round of elections to the National Council. Then, Samtse with seven and Paro with five, fielded the highest number of candidates.
Today, the number has almost doubled. While there are four aspiring candidates each from Samtse and Paro, Dagana tops the list with18 aspirants followed by 13 from Mongar and 10 from Tsirang. On an average, there are at least six aspirants from each dzongkhag.
What appears to have not changed is the number of women candidates wanting to contest in the Council elections. From six in the first round to four in the second and now tentatively seven, the upper house doesn’t seem to be appealing to our women folks. That none of the four candidates got elected in the last election is telling of the people’s choices but not without questioning the rhetoric of Bhutan being a gender-neutral society.
Although studies show that gender is not an issue among voters, the perception that men are better and capable leaders than women still exists in the society. We blame education or culture for this perception but do not question the construction of such patriarchal norms. Women’s involvement in politics is restricted as observers and voters.
There is a need to debunk such perceptions for there have been times when the National Council has been perceived as an Opposition.
The Council is an apolitical institution that plays a crucial role in a society’s political process. As a body of statesmen and expertise, the Council deliberates on national issues and acts as a watchdog to monitor and review the functions of the ruling party and the opposition. The Council is not in pursuit of power but has the authority to review the power of the lower house.
Its authority to question policies such as the motor vehicle agreement and fiscal incentives in the recent sittings of the parliament has at times led people to perceive the house as an opposition. Such perspectives or even narratives could cloud the discourse because it is the interactions between the two houses that is crucial in understanding the legislative outcome. The legislative process must be examined to understand the significance of each house in a democracy.
The upcoming National Council elections will give us an insight into how far we have come in our journey to democracy.