The Druk Nyamdrup Tshogpa deserves congratulations for completing their 5-year tenure, and voters will now have 90 days to rate their success. Political parties are also relieved the Election Commission of Bhutan approved their manifestos. The right to vote is not going to be different from previous elections. With the ECB’s decision, some parties disclosed that critical manifesto pledges were revised or removed by an unknown committee. This means voters will be endorsing promises pre-approved by the Committee rather than original party platforms. Such an unprecedented step warrants thorough analysis, as it fundamentally deviates from democracy’s principles of government by and for the people. Allowing an opaque, unelected entity to shape political speech contradicts the ideal of open discourse between candidates and voters. This approach sets risks for future elections.

Similar controls were proposed in India, in recent times. The Supreme Court of India observed that it would be flawed on its part to declare every election promise in a manifesto as corrupt practice or unreasonable. The court pointed out that “the manifesto was a statement of policy not of a candidate but of a potential future government. While implementing the Directive Principles, it is for the government concerned to take into account its financial resources and the needs of the people.” This court said that the Election Commission does not have the power to regulate the election manifesto unless it is associated with the election process.

The argument why the ECB should not vet the political manifestos is because the primary role of the ECB is the conduct of free and fair elections, meaning limited to the process and not the outcome. Second, the constitution provides sufficient checks on political promises through parliamentary oversight after the election.

Article 1 highlights the foundational principles of informed decision-making and the right to vote as essential components of a democratic system, emphasizing the significance of empowering citizens to actively engage in the political processes that affect their lives and the future of their country. Article 7 ensures the right to free speech, access to information, and media freedom, ensuring the right to vote and facilitate an informed electorate and the ability to freely cast their votes in elections.

Articles 9, 10, 14, 15, and 16 of the Constitution provide checks on political promises and activities. Article 9 limits promises to promote the quality of life and gross national happiness. Article 10 enables parliamentary review of policies and legislation to hold the government accountable. The National Council and Opposition also provide checks and balances. Article 14 requires parliamentary approval for public expenditure and maintaining foreign currency reserves, limiting spending. Article 15 mandates that parties ensure national interests prevail over others for responsible governance and development. Finally, Article 16 provides public financing for parties to reduce undue influence on voters. Studies show public campaign financing increases electoral competition and candidates, positively contributing to voters’ ability to freely choose parties and candidates. Overall, these Articles constrain political overreach, foster accountable and representative governance, and reduce special interest influence through parliamentary oversight, spending limits, and public campaign financing.

While this time, the political parties obediently complied with this unprecedented decision from the ECB, it raised constitutional concerns, as Bhutan’s enlightened monarchs envisioned democracy requiring vigorous discourse, transparency, and diffusion of authority. Finally, the ECB’s actions lacked evidence-based analysis on the implications of the committee’s decision and potential repercussions on democratic principles.

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

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