With the Royal Decree calling the National Council Elections and setting the process in motion on February 15, Bhutan has now entered the election period.
The Election Commission of Bhutan has issued a notification calling the elections listing a total of 19 events that will culminate in the election of the members of the National Council, the house of review. While 172 aspirants have registered for the elections, it is not yet clear how many of the incumbent members will re-contest.
While the Commission has notified the people that the polls for the National Council elections would be conducted in a total of 866 Polling Stations, it is yet to upload the draft Electoral Roll on its website, notification for which has already been issued.
We understand that the Commission is making every effort to ensure that the parliamentary election process is free, fair and non-cumbersome. Setting up 64 postal ballot facilitation booths across the country as well as mobile booths for those with special needs is a commendable decision. This is likely to make voting convenient to the public and result in increased voter turn out.
While at it, the Commission could also make its website more voter-friendly. For instance, the drop down menu to download postal ballot forms doesn’t work. Voters do have the option to collect the forms from the dzongkhag election offices or the Democracy House, but in a digital age, accessing forms online shouldn’t be such an arduous task.
The election period also means that the media cannot publish and broadcast profiles of National Council aspirants. Officials say this is to level the playing field for the candidates as well as to deter campaigning. The commission has notified that Social Media Monitors shall be appointed in the dzongkhags to assist the media arbitrator, but given the fluidity and anonymity of social media, monitoring campaigning on social media could still pose a challenge. How would the commission, for instance, determine a post made before the election period but shared after the election period, as familarisation and campaigning?
In the spirit of conducting free and fair elections, the commission has notified that it would now allow a permitted media agency or journalist to witness and observe the counting procedures on the condition that they comply with the procedural requirements. The commission has also stated that a permitted media agency or journalist shall be allowed into a Polling Station but will not have access to the voting compartment when a voter is inside it and will be escorted out of the Polling Station after a few minutes.
These rules were not clear in the past and the differences between the media and returning officers often resulted in misinforming the people. At a time when the media is being barred from covering national discourses, we respect the commission’s spirit in allowing the media to witness the most important process of an election.