More than 432,000 Bhutanese are eligible to vote in the National Council elections next month, which is about half of the country’s population.
Along with the number of eligible voters, which has increased since the country’s first election when it saw 312, 817 voters, the number of council candidates and the election budget have also increased. With 127 contenders vying for a seat each at the house of review, the country on an average has about 3,400 voters for each candidate and 21,600 voters for each dzongkhag.
The Election Commission of Bhutan has allocated Nu 250M for the National Council elections, up by 68 percent from Nu 148.5M in 2013 and more than double of Nu 99.49M that was spent for the 2007-08 council elections.
The increase in the number of eligible voters, candidates and expenses have not however, translated into increased voter turnout.
Voter turnout in the first National Council election was 53.05 percent, which slumped to 45.15 percent in the 2013 National Council elections. We saw a 7.9 percent drop in voter turnout despite having about 67,000 more eligible voters.
This calls for an urgent need to address the electoral apathy or voter fatigue especially when efforts have been made to make the third parliamentary elections the most inclusive.
Low voter turnout could indicate that some citizens do not consider elections important enough to legitimise the election of a candidate. Voter turnout indicates the citizens’ interest in political processes and their withdrawal from and indifference to elections must be investigated, not lamented and ignored. If voters choose not to exercise their rights, an election is not considered inclusive, let alone free and fair.
The country may be in the midst of an election but save for scheduled events the commission is organising, the election mood is sombre in the ground. Social media feeds may be filled with the candidate’s manifestos and pledges, but for people to get a sense of an election, online campaigning has to be supplemented with similar events in the field. Unless the commission has designed the election as such besides also instructing the candidates on their manifestos and campaign materials, virtual events do not necessarily make elections an inclusive exercise.
It has been learnt that the commission has limited the number of placards for each candidate to 150. With the number of households higher than 150 in most gewogs, candidates have raised concerns on how these placards could be evenly distributed. The commission may have its own reasons but there are already apprehensions that distributing placards to some and not to others could have an impact on the voters’ choice.
As a body that was constituted to supervise the electoral process, the commission’s actions should be democratic. It should ensure that the people are informed to make their choice of representatives. While it is empowered to direct, conduct and control elections to the parliament and the local government, it must also uphold its mandate to ensure that the processes involved in conducting an election are free and fair. Elections are about people’s choice, not the commission’s.
The conduct of public debates appear to be more a procedural necessity for the commission than to allow candidates to debate on issues that matter to the people. To what extent these “debates” inform people to make informed choices or obstruct voter participation is yet to be seen.
Going by the recent developments, low voter turnout can as much be a constructed phenomenon.