The sacred gift of the constitution and democracy from the Golden Throne has strengthened our special nation in a profound manner giving an electorate voice and choice to every citizen. The continuous nurturing of democracy by the successive governments, the constitutional bodies, media houses, the high voter turnout in the parliamentary elections and the various debates in the Parliament sessions on the Election Act is a healthy sign of maturity and evolution of our democratic system. However, our Thromde elections are much to be desired and provide opportunities to reflect, research and improve it.
The experiences from the past elections provide valuable insights to nurture the precious gift especially for populated urban areas in need of vital services and inculcate citizen participation in its management and improvement. The present Local Government election rules required both the contestants as well as the voters to be registered in the civil registry of the local area for not less than one year to take part in the election. This rule hinders many interested people and capable candidates to participate in Municipal elections.
In the 2016 Thromde elections the total resident population of Thimphu was around 115,000 and only 2,257 people voted. Phuentsholing had a resident population of around 28,000 and only 487 people participated(248 voted “Yes” and 239 voted “No”). Similarly Gelephu then had a resident population of around 10,000 but only 677 people voted. A similar trend was seen in the first Thromde elections in 2011 and is likely to repeat in early 2021.
Such repetitive results with the municipal council providing services mostly to the residents who did not participate in the elections. It leads to speculations that the local leaders are aligning to external and business influences who never voted for them leading to less accountability for its functions, management and the services provided.
Such a situation dilutes the very objectives of the Local Government especially in urban areas which are: to Provide democratic and accountable government for local communities, to ensure the provision of services to communities in a sustainable manner and to encourage the involvement of communities and community organizations in matters of local governance.
More importantly, it reflects the stagnation of the powers of the Election Commission (36 a & b) to introduce any device (a new strategy in this case) or system for registration of voters and research electoral and other matters. The Election Act, 2008 through its clause 45 empowers the ECB to review our electoral system when it deemed necessary and submit its findings and recommendations to Parliament.
Has this happened since 2008? Can we infer that the low representation of the urban Bhutanse community in municipal council as a failure of some of the rules that need urgent reviews and refinement? What strategies can be put in place to make the Thromde elections as successful as the parliamentary elections where the voter turnout has been as high as 79 percent?
One way forward is to allow Bhutanese citizens and residents who have paid income tax in a city for the last year or more to be eligible to participate in Thromde elections. Similarly, Bhutanese citizens who have paid income tax in a city for 10 years and more may be eligible to contest for the post in the city or municipal council. The taxpayers’ number or TPN number could be easily included as a part of the Thromde election Voter card. This might mitigate the alarmingly low representation of the urban population in the Thromde Council and provide opportunities for dynamic and result oriented leaders to contest for the various posts.
Institutions like the Election Commission of Bhutan and others could provide adequate funding and guidance and work with schools of Political Science and sociology at RTC and Sherubtse College to delve deeper in the issue through research. Such a move will knit the academics and practices and provide opportunities to the students and faculties to come up with different models for discussion and refinement by the policy makers.
Such mature initiatives are the need of the hour as much as our tryst with the Bhutan Children’s Parliament.
It is very easy to keep on quoting an imperfect rule from the past and stay safe but the current state of the number of voters against the number of residents in our Thromde elections needs to be reviewed with the visions to make a vibrant democracy for Bhutan.
QUT Design Lab