Bhutan has nominated 130 candidates for the upcoming National Council elections, the highest number to date.
This is more than twice the number of candidates that were nominated to contest the 2008 and 2013 elections. In 2008, the country saw 52 candidates and there were 67 candidates vying for a seat at house of review in 2013.
The surge in the number of aspirants is encouraging for it indicates the people’s willingness to participate in the parliamentary elections. As of now, there are at least six candidates for each dzongkhag on an average, offering people the choice to choose their choice of representative.
The National Council is an apolitical body that monitors and reviews the functions of the government and the opposition. It is a house of review with the power to initiate legislations and to act on matters that concern the security and sovereignty of the country.
Electing National Council representatives thus is a grave responsibility.
But unlike the number of aspirants, the dhamngoi zomdu process in the gewogs, did not see a good voter turnout. Provisional figures show that about 53,464 votes were cast across the country for the 170 aspirants to choose the 130 nominees. This means, about 411 people chose each of the 130 candidates.
Even if low voter turn out was expected, there is still a need to understand why people in the gewogs do not consider the dhamngoi zomdu process as an important first step in electing their representative. Choosing one’s representative is the most basic right of a citizen. It should be a concern when voters choose to stay home instead of exercising their right at the grassroots level.
This trend also raises questions on how effective our voters’ education programmes have been and if the amount of funds spent was worth it. Elections are a national exercise and it is the people that legitimise the power of the elected to govern. Poor voter turn out right at the beginning of a transition is worrying because elections are about collective choice.
Besides dismal voter turn out, concerns are also raised on how people are not familiar with their candidates. This shows that candidates, the aspirants and election officials should do more to engage the people so that they can take informed choice. A free and fair electoral process must be inclusive.
And the election commission has made laudable efforts to make Mission 2018 the most inclusive parliamentary elections. It has extended postal ballot facilities to the Bhutanese diaspora abroad, mobile polling booths for those with special needs and facilitation booths to facilitate residential postal ballot voting.
But this exercise must not compensate for the poor voter turnout in the gewogs where people make their first and often the last call.