For quality political discourse
It is the time when rural villagers are called to numerous meetings, relationships are re-established, and promises are made. It is the time of common forums, where all candidates of the locality come together under the vigilance of officials to talk about their parties and manifestoes.
Some rural villagers look forward to attending the meeting. That is the time when they listen to their prospective representative in person. With no door-to-door campaign this year, the common forum is the only platform that brings voters and candidates together. For many others, it is a commotion of their daily schedule. Someone has to attend the meeting, and they send the one who is least useful in the farms or household chores.
Rural residents say many promises are too good to be true. As the popular statement these days, politicians build castles in the air, and people listen to it in awe and disbelief.
The Election Commission defines ‘common forum’ as a facility created by election authorities to provide an equal and cost-effective opportunity to a political party or candidate to address the electorate at a predetermined time and predesignated venue for the purpose of electioneering, reducing the need for separate meetings or door-to-door campaigning.
Officially, common forums are being conducted for electorates to get information on political parties and candidates. It is also for the political parties and candidates to communicate and present their manifestoes to the electorate. The rationale is noble. It is to minimize inconvenience to voters who will otherwise be asked to attend different meetings held by different parties and candidates.
Common forums are important for rural voters, who do not own televisions and are not on social media, to participate in the electoral or political discussion. It will help in fostering a better understanding between voters and politicians.
Issues of the common forum
Common forums have always made news in past elections. From low attendance to the use of language and time provided to candidates to communicate their promises, issues were raised for better conduct of the forum. The issues are still relevant in this election.
Common forums happening in all parts of the country lack citizens’ participation. Without any question-answer session in the common forum, there is no way the electorate could question if the promises are practical or doable. Just attending common forums and voting do not help citizens participate in the democratic process.
The other pertinent issue of the common forum is language.
One hindrance to political discourse in the common forum is the language used. When rural residents, who have never gone to school or do not understand the national language well, receive information on politics in Dzongkha, they have no other option than relying on a third person. Most rural residents, who are not proficient in the national language, say they attend the common forums or other meetings because the village representative asks them.
The true essence of democracy is political discourse. When political discourses are hindered, it will impact the quality of information that will flow to the public.
Political researchers Alan Renwick and Michela Palese define high-quality information as information that is accurate, relevant, accessible, and balanced, and high-quality discussion requires high-quality information.
In their research article titled ‘Doing democracy better,’ they claim high-quality discussion is also inclusive and bridges between people of different backgrounds and perspectives, and it is open-minded.
Calling politics unavoidably messy and democratic decision-making often disappointing, the researchers argue that democracy could function better if we focus on improvements that are achievable. “Many voters are alienated by what politicians and campaigners talk about them and how they talk about them; they struggle to find the information they want from sources they trust; they are worried about the effects of misinformation and about the rise of ‘echo chambers.’
While the Oxford definition of ‘echo chamber’ is an enclosed space where sounds reverberate, social scientists define ‘echo chambers’ as a media space an individual or group occupies, where political messages are magnified to suit their purpose. In Bhutan’s case, ‘echo chambers’ can be spaces where people become members of groups, online or in person, where political discussions of only one narrative occur.
With excessive use of social media in the country, particularly during elections, where people believe whatever is discussed on social media apps like Wechat and Telegram, many Bhutanese are in ‘echo chambers’ and only quality and meaningful discussion in common forums could inform and educate the public properly.
Allowing politicians to use local languages in common forums could not only improve information flow to the electorates but also in preservation of local languages as enshrined in the Constitution.
Sociolinguists Michael E Brown and Sumit Ganguly claim democratic processes often help in the promotion of local languages because politicians have electoral incentives while using them in political campaigns. They claim it is an effective way to win votes.
Officials on election duty allow politicians to communicate in their local languages for five minutes unofficially. The time granted differs in every election.
Many, both politicians and electorate, question why we cannot formalize the unofficial practice. Besides helping politicians and voters to understand each other better, it will also only demonstrate how accommodative and inclusive our democracy is.
Politicians and electorates aspire to use the common forum to their advantage. As per the global trend, political discourses take a new turn every election, and public institutions that facilitate the discourse should also amend its rules to suit the change so that the voters are not disenchanted with democracy. Nation-building is an ongoing process and improving the democratic process is one step towards it.
Meanwhile, as citizens, we should exercise our duty through the sacred and secret ballot after listening to all candidates like an unbiased judge and not to political fanatics, who try to convince like aggressive lawyers. Common forum is the platform that provides the space to listen to all candidates. It is crucial so that our voters are not ill-informed and discourse on politics not personal. Common forums should be made flexible so that it can educate and inform our electorate better.
She is a former Editor of Kuensel and a PhD candidate in Language and Politics at University of New England, Australia