As election campaigning through common forums is held across the country, the people in southern parts of the country struggle to understand what the candidates speak.

Language continues to remain a barrier to convey the message to the people during common forum campaigns.

In Tsholingkhar, Tsirang, the common forum began at 9.15am on August 27.

But even before two of the four candidates completed their 13 minutes speech, people started dragging chairs and looking at their cell phones and murmuring to each other.

Either the speakers could not grasp the audience’s attention or the audience could not understand what the speaker said.

People later said language was a barrier.

Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) issued written guideline stating that Dzongkha is the medium of communication during common forums and prohibits candidates from delivering speeches in other languages and dialects.

People, who turn up, however, remain calm despite not understanding the speeches in the common forums.

Voters say that common forum is one of the significant gatherings to know about the parties and candidates.

They say it is at the common forum that candidates spell out what they have to offer to the people and how the country would be governed but the language doesn’t let them understand it in details.

A voter in Doonglagang, Pal Man Chuwan, said villages are now filled with parties and candidates. “But different party manifestos that are related to the farmers can be better understood from the candidates only.”

He said it is important to compare one party manifesto and ideology to the other but without understanding the language, they are unable to do that.

Pal Man Chuwan said he is concerned that such a problem might lead people to vote without being well informed.

When most of her fellow villagers were attending a common forum, Sancha Maya, 50, chose to stay back and work in the farm. She sent her son instead.

She said she sent her son to understand the message in the forum and relate to the family later. “He will tell us which party is good.”

A similar situation prevails in the far east. In Samdrupjongkhar’s Phuntshothang gewog, Bhakta Bdr, 75, listens to the candidates but says he does not understand much. “Those of us, especially above 40 years, have trouble understanding the language. So, we feel sleepy.”

The candidates and their coordinators interact with the people outside the meeting halls soliciting support.

The language may be barrier but the populated southern dzongkhags are important for the political parties. Soon after the first presidential debate, all party presidents rushed to the southern dzongkhag of Tsirang, Dagana, Sarpang and Samtse. Samtse has the highest number of voters at 47,360, followed by Sarpang at 30,183 and Dagana with 24,570 registered voters. Tsirang has 23,696 voters.

While the party presidents can deliver their speeches in language that is best understood by the audience, candidates are mandated to strictly use Dzongkha in the common forums.

For instance PDP president Tshering Tobgay during his campaign in Tsirang was accompanied by a Lhotshamkha translator. The DNT president Lotey Tshering conducted two meetings in Tsirang and spoke in Lhotshamkha throughout.

BKP president Neten Zangmo switched between Lhotshamkha and Tshanglakha in Phuntshothang and Pemathang gewogs of Samdrupjongkhar.

The two meetings saw crowds mostly of elderly people.

Damber Bahadur from Pemathang said that the candidates could take some extra time and speak in the language the people in a particular community are comfortable with.

“I was fully absorbed when Neten Zangmo spoke in our dialect,” he said, adding that the parties will have an advantage if their manifesto is conveyed clearly.

It is not only the voters who are worried about the language in common forums.

All four candidates of the Sergithang-Tsirangtoed constituency are fluent and competent in Dzongkha but are worried if the message they want to deliver has been correctly received.

Prior to the commencement of the common forum, the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa’s Sergithang-Tsirangtoed candidate, Garja Man Rai, proposed the election officials if they could be permitted to translate their speech into Lhotshamkha. His request was denied.

He said he did not request the election officials to allow him to speak in the local dialect for the whole session but to allow him to translate it in the last few minutes.

Druk Phuensum Tshogpa candidate, Kewal Ram Adhikari, also said that to send the message to the voters, the language should be understandable.

“A level playing field will be created should there be an opportunity to make voters understand the ideologies of the party,” he said.

Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party’s candidate, Damber Kumar Ghimiray, also said that when language becomes a barrier, the competency of the party or the candidate will be judged on the fluency of Dzongkha and not the message they want to deliver.

People’s Democratic Party candidate, Novin Darlami, also said that sending the messages clearly to voters without language barrier is important but having a translation would pamper the voters.

All candidates said that such public gathering is one of the few forums where the national language is promoted.

Nirmala Pokhrel | Tsirang 

Additional reporting by Tshering Palden in Samdrupjongkhar