… Voters cite numerous problems in travelling home to vote

Rinzin Wangchuk  

As Bhutan hosts its fourth National Council elections, many eligible voters living in Thimphu and overseas including service providers expressed their concerns and disappointment with the discontinuation of postal ballot facilitation booth (PBFB) and restricting conventional postal ballots (PB) only to some sections.

Those, who can afford to travel to their constituencies, are planning to take leave from work to vote.

“Actually, I thought of availing either PB or PBFB service but we were told that the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are not eligible for PB,” a corporate employee said. “So I’ll have to request my office to grant me leave for five days so that I can go personally to my gewog and vote to the candidate whom I know.”

Another corporate employee said that voters like him going to the respective dzongkhag merely to vote would be too expensive. “But there is no option but to go to the designated polling station and cast vote to the most deserving candidate who can represent in the House of Review,” he said.

Heads of some SOEs said that if many employees take leave at the same time, some offices may have to shut down.

“People are talking about taking leave and go in group to cast their votes. If it so happens, company’s business and operations would be paralysed,” a chief executive officer of SOE said.

He said that the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) should have considered all these rather than giving preference to only selected agencies.

The Election Act of Bhutan 2008 has a provision for employers to allow employees leave of absence to vote.  The section 338 states that an employer shall, if an employee in any business, trade, industrial undertaking or any government establishment notifies his/her employer before the poll that he/she desires leave of absence for voting at any election, grant leave of absence, for reasonable period as is necessary to enable him/her to vote at the election.

As per the Act, any employer or head of educational and training institutes contravening the provisions of section 338 or 340 and any person contravening the provisions of section 341 shall be guilty of the offence of violation. “But who would be accountable for the loss if the office has to shut down due to manpower shortage?” an official said.

Voter turnout concerns

Some said that the voter turnout in the fourth parliamentary elections is likely to drop with the restricted PB facility and the removal of PBFB services.

A 55-year-old former corporate employee from Trashigang who lives in Thimphu was expecting to avail PBFB service to cast his vote.

The ECB announced that there will be no PBFB and eligible voters have the right to cast their votes at the designated polling stations in their constituencies, he was upset. “Now I have decided not to exercise my franchise,” the retired man said. “Otherwise, it will cost me an arm and a leg to travel back and forth.”

Many voters Kuensel talked to shared the same sentiments that they won’t be able to travel to their constituencies considering the expenses and bad road conditions.

A retired educationist said that she will not go to her village, which is three days journey from Thimphu, only to cast her vote. “I don’t have the time and resources to go to vote for the NC candidate although I know it is important to have the right candidate,” she said.

She said that the ECB should consider PBFB, which was facilitated earlier, instead of limiting opportunities for people to vote. “It is a bad move from ECB side to discontinue the most convenient mode of voting,” another voter from Trashiyangtse said. “Wrong decision means Bhutan is going back from digital era to medieval period practices.”

In 2018 parliamentary elections, the ECB initiated PBFB and the same service was facilitated in the Local Government elections of 2021.

“It seems ECB is not concerned about the voter turnout going by these changes,” a general manager in a corporation said. “I’m not sure whether I will vote or not because I have to travel two days to reach my polling station which is expensive.”

A businessman from Mongar who runs a hardware store in Thimphu said that he and his family members will not participate in elections this time. “It is better to make some money here in Thimphu than to spend Nu 10,000 in fueling car alone and another Nu 15,000 for logistics,” he said.

Given the past experiences, people also speculate that political parties and even NC candidates might resort to hire buses to ferry voters to their constituencies during the elections. “When voters cannot afford to travel, they would prefer to take a free ride,” a voter said.

In 2018 NC elections, 42,441 turned out to cast their votes through PBFB in the 20 dzongkhags and 22,471 voted through PB. A total of 95,570 registered for PBFB during the LG elections in 2021. Thimphu alone had more than 30,000 PBFB voters.

In an earlier interview, an election official said that the PBFB is not a requirement set by law, but was essentially an arrangement put in place to address, initially, the incidence of postal ballot rejection and more recently in the LG elections of 2021, to mitigate the risks of Covid-19 transmissions in the communities.

Moving forward, according to the ECB, it is now important for the ECB to implement the electoral process as per the provisions enshrined in the Election Act, unless otherwise necessitated by compelling emergency situations like the recent Covid-19 pandemic.

Postal ballot issue

Unlike in the past elections, the ECB also restricted PB and extended it only to the eligible postal voters covered under Section 331 of the Election Act . The selected eligible postal voters are civil servants, employees of DHI, members of the armed forces, students, and trainees.

The spouse or dependent of a person can also avail PB service if the spouse or dependent is ordinarily residing with him/her; and any other group of voters as specified by ECB in consultation with the government.

Some working in the SOEs question why PB is given to only Druk Holding and Investments companies and not to the SOEs. “It is a stepmotherly  treatment,” an SOE employee said.

A corporate finance manager said that he will not go to polling station since he has so many deadlines to fulfil. “I think PB and facilitation booths need to be expanded to the greatest extend possible,” one executive director of civil society organization (CSO) said.  “I may not be able to go to a polling station to vote because I have already committed to lot of engagements.”

Overseas voters 

A former journalist, who is now pursuing higher studies in Australia, said that election is about majority deciding who will represent them. “When ECB restricts people’s participation in voting, it will not only impact voter turn out but the election outcome too,” she said. “Irrespective of where an individual is based, they should be allowed to vote as they are Bhutanese citizens and election outcome will impact everyone.”

There are more than 20,000 Bhutanese including students, permanent residency visa holders, dependents and family members who are all eligible voters. “But only few hundreds of students who registered with the universities and colleges were able to register for PB,” another Bhutanese woman working on temporary resident visa (TRV), in Perth, Western Australia, said. “We wanted to vote and make a difference. Now we can’t,” she told Kuensel.

According to the ECB, as long as a Bhutanese citizen living abroad falls under the categories covered by Section 331 of the Election Act, they are eligible for postal ballot. As per the citizenship laws of Bhutan, a Bhutanese citizen cannot hold dual citizenship.

There are two types of visa holders in Australia. One can become a permanent resident (PR) of Australia by applying for and being granted a permanent visa that allows one to remain in Australia indefinitely but not a citizen. An Australian permanent resident and an Australian citizen are not the same thing.

Other one is the temporary resident visa meant for international students who have recently graduated with skills and qualifications that are relevant to specific occupations Australia needs. TRV allows one to live, study and work in Australia temporary.

Who are likely to miss postal ballots?

Employees and dependents of SOEs

Employees of UN offices, NGOs, and CSOs

Employees of private sector and hospitality industries

Patient attendants in the hospitals

Teachers of private schools

Facilitators of ECCD

Drivers and conductors of public transport

PR, TRV and dependents in overseas

Dependents of those who avail PB