Our Constitution enshrines the “general will of the people” as the basis of government, expressed through elections. Parties’ manifestos are vital to this democratic process as they lay out competing visions. The manifesto’s purpose “goes beyond being a mere policy checklist; it acts as a party’s contract with the electorate, outlining their visions and policies” against other political parties. Scrutinizing manifestos could potentially infringe on parties’ discretion and citizens’ voting rights—soul of the democratic process.

The Guiding Principles of Political Parties, as stated in Section 132 of the Election Act 2008, highlight the importance of prioritising national interest over other concerns and providing choices that align with the people’s goals and aspirations. Article 9 of the Constitution mandates the elected government to ensure the people’s good quality of life and promote conditions for Gross National Happiness. These are constitutionally built in checks and balances to ensure that political parties exercise caution when presenting manifestos.

The concept of predicting the competency of a potential government is inherently uncertain. Reviewing manifestos and declaring them reasonable or unreasonable raises questions about the basis for such predictions. Further, “manifesto commitments can also dictate the options available to ministers when in government,” and the ability to fulfil party’s manifesto depends on numerous factors such as the majority in the ruling party, the strength of the opposition, and the identification of red lines, including constitutional and legal limitations, strength of media, global situations, and international support. For instance, events like the Ukraine War or the Covid-19 pandemic are unpredictable and may significantly impact a party’s performance.

The competence and impartiality of the supposedly secret independent review committee appointed by the ECB must be considered. In the absence of professional political scientists in the country, assessing the committee’s ability to predict a party’s future performance becomes challenging, guarding against potential political bias within the committee members is even more difficult. Setting up of secret committees can create further doubt in the democracy itself.

Section 328 of the ECB Act guarantees every citizen the right to vote according to their free will and choice, and subjecting manifestos to review may affect citizens’ voting rights based on the parties’ original promises. The Constitution and preamble of the ECB Act make it clear that the ECB’s primary responsibilities are limited to conduct of free and fair elections and overseeing electoral matters. Neither the Constitution nor the ECB Act mention any such power to ECB. Such review will may unintentionally allow the Committee to influence the outcome and future of political parties.

Different parties assuming power each election shows voters responsibly evaluating manifestos. The country’s democratic values are upheld when different parties are elected to power in each election cycle. With this track record, preemptively judging manifestos’ reasonableness seems premature. While the ECB’s intentions to protect national interest specially when nation is undergoing serious economic crisis and shortage of human resource are commendable, its existing mandates, powers, and constitutional philosophy do not seem to support involvement in manifesto review. It is the voters who can decide if the political manifestos are reasonable or unreasonable by voting—in or out every five years. Will the ECB or review Committee take accountability if next government fails to fulfill any of their promises? Thus, maintaining the status quo and trusting voters to exercise their judgment and rights wisely at the ballot box could be best for our country.

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.