MB Subba 

In what is a deviation from the past trend, political parties have been able to retain their members after the 2018 general election except for the ruling party, Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT).

The DNT today has only 151 registered members after an exodus of its members, according to the latest membership lists of political parties the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) has released.

More than 11,000 members resigned from the party during the last one year. In 2018, DNT had 11,383 members, which was the highest among all the political parties. 

The ruling party has 25 members from Samtse, which is the highest among the 20 dzongkhags.

The party does not have any registered member from Samdrupjongkhar and Zhemgang. The Political Parties Rules and Regulations states that a party should have broad-based with cross-national membership and support in all dzongkhags.   

A decrease in the membership contributes negatively to the party’s exchequer in the form of registration fees and voluntary contributions.

The party’s general secretary Phurba said that some members wanted to participate in local elections. “Some of them want to look for jobs. Some resigned voluntarily,” he said.

A political observer said that the drastic decline in the membership was a blow to the ruling party. “In other countries, the membership will rise drastically if the party wins the election,” he said.

The DNT’s charter mandates the party to elect a new president if the incumbent president takes over as prime minister or opposition leader. The prime minister holds both the posts. 

Four political parties together have about 12,257 registered members, which means that about 1.7 percent of the country’s total population are members of political parties. In 2017, the country’s population was 735,553, of which 681,720 persons were Bhutanese.

The post-election decline in the membership of political parties has remained a trend since the first democratic election in 2008. Political parties link the post-election withdrawal of membership to the cooling off period that is required to apply for jobs and contest local government elections.

The other three political parties, Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP) have been successful to prevent mass exodus of members.

Opposition DPT today has about 5,500 registered members, an increase of 613 members from 4,705 members just before the election. The PDP, which had 5,520 registered members in 2018, today has 5,403 members.

The BKP has 1,203 members, a slight decline from 1,215 in the pre-election period last year.

The approach of local elections thromde and gewog elections is expected to make more members give up their membership. The need for non-elected members to earn a living through employment makes obligatory for them to deregister.

However, political parties differ on whether the membership numbers indicate the support base of individual parties. Some party officials said that deregistration from the party does not necessarily mean that they have withdrawn the support for the party.

DPT general secretary Sangay Phurba said that members in the past were not comfortable to be associated with the party. “Today they are comfortable to remain as members although some have resigned on various grounds,” he said.

DPT had suffered a mass exodus after the second general election in 2013. The party’s membership strength had plummeted to 75 at one point of time after the 2013 election.

A BKP member from Samtse, Sajan Rai, said that it was his commitment in the party and its ideology that kept him in the party. He said that being in the party helped him grow as a person.

“People know me through BKP and we as members also get opportunities for capacity building workshops,” he said.

A PDP member said that some members decided to stay in the party considering the party’s prospect in the next election. He said that his party stands a good chance in the next election.

Party officials said that the membership size does not necessarily indicate the support base of a party although membership size strengthen intra-party democracy and helps the party maintain the public confidence in the party.

“A large membership base was one of the reasons why DNT won in 2018,” an observer said.

Politically active people in the country was small given that a large portion of the population were civil servants, corporate employees and members of armed forces.

A strong membership base not only strengthens the support base but also contributes to the resources to run the party.

New parties were denied registration by the ECB due to lack of a membership base in all 20 dzongkahgs among other reasons before the 2018 election.