In the 2018 National Assembly primary round election, postal ballots – conventional and those cast through the facilitation booths – was one of the factors that determined the results.
The number of people who used the facilities was impressive. About 81 percent or 108,580 people used the facility set up by the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) to facilitate and encourage Bhutanese to exercise their franchise. For the two parties that made through to the general round, postal votes made the difference.
The success of an election is also judged by the turnout. Not many will dissect the voting pattern. But for Bhutan, the facility is turning out to be the most important. The primary round this year was held when the monsoon was at its heights. Fortunately, there were no major disasters caused by the weather to keep voters away. Given our road conditions in summer and the fragile topography, weather could determine the turnout. This is true when people have to travel for days to their village and back.
The ECB, knowing this, has extended the facility to as many people as possible. But there are still a good number of voters who are excluded. Small private business is the worst affected. The election is an expensive affair for many. People are reluctant to lose time and business travelling back and forth. This discourages people from participating in the election even if they want to.
That voting is a fundamental duty and a right is not practically applicable to all voters. Some taste the sour grape for economic reasons. The overall voter turnout in the primary round is impressive at 66.36 percent. In figures, more than 147,500 eligible voters had not voted. While we celebrate the success percentage, we cannot be complacent.
Bhutan’s voter turnout, going by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental organisation that supports sustainable democracy, is only better than war-torn Afghanistan, chaotic Pakistan and Bangladesh in South Asia. The reasons are different.
It is a challenge for voters, in our neighbouring democracies, to even get to the polling stations. There are the pressures from bribes, threats, and even violence. We don’t have these pressures. Our challenge is convenience. This is evident from the increasing number of people voting through postal ballots.
The facility is not perfect, but it is convenient. A growing number of people are wishing if this facility could be extended to more people. The rich can afford even without the facility of postal ballot. It is economically disadvantaged that cannot. From the voting patterns, voter apathy is an issue among the urbanites even with choice of facilities.
It is said that by 2020, 50 percent of the Bhutanese would be living in urban areas. Even if 10 percent are excluded, it will be a huge number. As we plan for the general round, extending the postal ballot facility to more people should sit on the priority list of lessons learnt from the “learning from experience programme.”