The Election Commission of Bhutan has the responsibility to conduct free and fair elections, not to decide for the people.
The High Court’s ruling in the Commission vs Druk Gaki Tshogpa case made this point clear to the commission, which while vetting aspiring political parties for registration had gone beyond its mandate to judge the competence of those who had come together to form a party.
Forming a political party is a grave responsibility. Aspiration and social media hype is not enough to be a part of the political apparatus. Heeding to the national call means forming political parties that are as inclusive and as diverse as the society.
In the recent case, the aspiring party did not meet the technical requirements set by the Commission to register a party. It did not have members from all 20 dzongkhags and so was denied registration.
But the court also reminded the Commission that it couldn’t impose other requirements that the law doesn’t state. To register, a party doesn’t require all 47 candidates. To contest an election, all 47 candidates are required.
The Commission, in a public notification announcing its decision to deny registration to Druk Gaki Tshogpa, had observed concerns on leadership and the lack of even a single person with demonstrated leadership ability at the national level or experience of having held an office of public responsibility and authority at a certain level. Such requirements could perhaps be one of the reasons why we see political parties roping in senior bureaucrats. Whether these potential candidates, with experience of holding an office could represent the people appears to be a non-issue for the Commission. Had it been contested, the Commission’s observation on one potential candidate appearing to be a different person, of different gender would also have been questionable.
When Druk Kuenphen Tshogpa was denied registration last July, it stated the applicant party was found neither prepared nor convincing in terms of its leadership capacity, competence and readiness to shoulder the responsibility of a registered political party. The recent case has given much clarity on the powers of the election commission and the requirements aspiring political parties must meet.
But with election mood gaining momentum, more confusions or varying interpretation of laws are likely to arise. For instance, the recent decision to suspend the registration of health professionals to dissuade them from practicing during election period has received mixed reactions. This was not an issue in the last elections but to problematise it now, especially when one of the party presidents is a medical specialist, would be wrong. The medical council does not implement the election laws and to do so now, with the health minister as its president, could suggest that the notification was politically provoked.
We will see more issues in the coming months and not all would be contested in the court of law. The high court has already reminded the election commission of its powers. As a constitutional body that overseas the electoral process, the Commission needs no reminder that its actions must be democratic.