Yangchen C Rinzin 

According to the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB), the last bye-election for Choekhor-Tang constituency in Bumthang cost the government Nu 2.236 million (M).

The constituency became vacant after former Opposition Leader Pema Gyamtsho (PhD) resigned on September 7 last year.  The bye-election was held on November 19 last year, where member of parliament (MP) Dawa won the bye-election.

The majority of expenses incurred were for daily subsistence allowance of returning officers, national observers, security personnel, polling officials and dzongkhag election officials on election duty.

An official from ECB said that this was the trend of expenditure in most of the bye-elections every year, as the electoral process remains the same. “However, owing to the prevailing global pandemic last year, an additional expense was incurred.”

The expenses also include campaign finance, setting up an office in Bumthang and Australia, institution of Covid-19 safety protocols, postal ballots, and state sponsored election materials.

Similarly, the government also spent Nu 0.444M on the bye-election of Bumdeling gewog in Trashiyangtse last year.  The bye-election was conducted after the former gup was convicted in a forgery case.  The government also spent Nu 0.389M for the bye-election of mangmi for Goenshari gewog in Punakha after the previous mangmi passed away.

The expenditure for tshogpa bye-election for Peljorling chiwog of Phuntengchung gewog in Tsirang was Nu 0.183M.

While ECB is mandated to conduct bye-elections, as per Sections 577 and 579 of the Election Act 2008, as and when causal vacancies arise, the quandary over the resignation of elected leaders without completing their term remains debatable.

Debates are underway as to whether MPs, who resign prematurely, should be allowed to re-contest in future elections.  Some feel that, while it was not fair to hold back members, the problem would not be solved until it put in legislation.

Many say that such an issue would not be solved until there were specific regulations to refund government election expenses. “The National Assembly, National Council, local government or election Acts don’t say that elected members can’t resign. It’s not clear.”

An ECB official said that the election commission could only act as per the Election Act’s provisions to conduct the by-election.  Still, the reason for the vacancy of a constituency and the necessity to act is not in the purview of the ECB.

“We’re required to conduct by-elections when the seat of a member elected to any House of Parliament or Local Government is vacant on various reasons,” an official said. “This is to fill the vacancy, and, as per the Act, the bye-election should be held within 90 days and 30 days for local government.”

The official added that expenditure is bound to occur because bye-elections occur as per the provisions.  Still, keeping in mind limited resources, ECB has always underscored the need to be judicious and exercise prudence in incurring election expenses.

ECB’s measures to reduce the expenditure of election include doing away with polling assistants’ deployment in 1,127 polling stations during the local government elections and 865 polling stations during the Parliamentary elections.

The ECB official said that the ECB has also stopped issuing extension kits to officials performing election duty in difficult polling stations and done away giving impress fund of Nu 30,000 to returning officers.

“The ECB has a budget for by-election. However, as per the norms, the finance ministry releases the budget when needed for the election,” the ECB official said.