As Bhutan gears up for another electoral cycle, citizens are seen grappling in trying to understand the offerings of different political parties—deciphering their stances on various issues and visions for the nation. Amidst a sea of similar pledges and promises, the emphasis on ideology seems overshadowed, with parties leaning more towards voter-centric benefits than a clear ideological framework.

In democracies worldwide, ideology holds pivotal importance in politics, encapsulating beliefs, values, ideas, norms, and guidelines that shape a political party’s aspirations. Ideology provides direction on the what, when, where, why, and how of achieving national goals, aiding voters in identifying with a party’s thinking and exercising their choice.

Ideology is formed when people with similar thinking and values group together, discuss and agree upon a particular viewpoint and structure it to make it stronger and codified, and finally propagate the idea into the masses to gain support. Every political party in every nation has its own ideology, some being capitalism, communism, liberalism and socialism,and these ideologies further shape the discourse and priorities of the party.

Political parties generally base their political action on an ideology which can be described as being Left, Right or Centre.Left refers to people with liberal views who support progressive reforms, such as greater social and economic equality.The Far Left is considered more extreme, with revolutionary views, such as communism and socialism. 

The word  Right, in contrast, refers to people who have conservative views, who are disposed to preserving existing conditions, restoring traditional ones and limiting change. The  Far Right  is considered more extreme,  including fascismand some oppressive ideologies. 

Further, Centre Right means moderate conservatives who are mostly pro-capitalism and support conservatism, while Centre Left means moderate liberals who support mixed economies and progressive taxation, with a stance for secularism and equality. 

Parties are normally motivated by different ideological goals that appeal to the electorate, with a manifesto containing policy proposals shaped by ideological values. It is common for democratic elections to feature competition between parties with different ideologies. Some political parties follow a certain ideology very closely, while others may take broad inspiration from a group of related ideologies without specifically embracing any one of them. 

It is said that no political party can survive without an  ideological commitment, because an ideology gives the party’s  supporters a mission to strive for, and voters normally vote for the parties with which they identify, which have policies that represent the citizens’ own interests best, or which are likely to change policies in their envisioned direction. Ideologies, therefore, help them decide their choice of candidates/party. 

While Bhutan has witnessed remarkable progress in terms of both democratic practices and good governance over the last few decades, the political transition since 2008 has exposed our nation to some unhealthy trends. Given our new experience with democracy, political parties do not seem to identify themselves with a particular ideology even though they seem slightly aligned towards either Left, Right or Centre, Often, political parties present their ideology in a manner that is more of a vision, mission statement, or slogan, rather than ideology. What is even more confusing for voters is that political parties keep changing their slogan at every election. Normally, political parties are consistent with their slogan until its achieved and no longer relevant. 

Another common practice in the political scenario is that parties often draw ideas from one another’s manifesto and, closer to the elections, voters will find all political parties making similar pledges, promises, and policy stance. WhileGross National Happiness (GNH) has been Bhutan’s development philosophy ever since it was promulgated by His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan in the 1970s, each political party’s interpretation and approach is different, further affecting continuity. 

In the absence of ideological commitment by political parties, voters do not understand the policy stance of political parties and what to expect in terms of important national policies and vision for the country. While there are manifestos, the fact is most voters don’t have the inclination to read lengthy manifestos while the illiterate have no access to it. Besides, the tendency of parties to borrow ideas from each other further diminishes the distinctiveness of their pledges in their manifestos.

Consequently, voters resort to exercising choices based on trivial criteria: A candidate’s persuasive and communication skills during the common forum and campaign; a candidate’s personal characteristics; the community a candidate comes from; promises and pledges that directly benefit voters; personal relations and association with candidates; and the party leaders’ charisma. 

Today, in the absence of clear ideology, in order to woo the voters to win, candidates are seen playing with the sentiments of the people, by either trying to gain sympathy, making them feel moved with their personal stories, playing the regional/locality card, or making extravagant promises and pledges. Candidates also echo pledges and promises made by their competitors, which further confuses the voters. The lack of ideology is also creating personalised differences leading to division in the community.

Given this trend, there is already growing cynicism about politicians and politics. There are signs of voter apathy, political alienation, and political immaturity, decreasing involvement of the people in social and political participation, lack of effective political participation by women, and declining confidence and trust in elected leaders and government. 

To address these challenges, ideological commitment by political parties is crucial. While some may argue that ideology is ineffective or irrelevant for Bhutan, it actually would serve as a crucial tool for voters to compare their own stances with those of political parties, fostering informed choices. It will also help promote healthy democracy, as political parties provide more choice to the people in terms of beliefs, values, and ideas and how they intend to achieve their goals, which is the essence of democracy. 

Bhutan need not adopt standard ideologies from other democracies, but can cultivate an ideology based on our own values, revolved around fulfilling the basic requirements of the people, and in creating an enabling environment for people to pursue happiness, in line with our development philosophy of GNH. Political parties cannot talk about the tall, fancy pledges, when people are struggling to have  clean drinking water or a proper bridge over a river, or  reliable mobile network. 

As the country develops, ideologies will also develop towards the higher realm of thought. It could be seen that  political parties in different countries did not suddenly pull their ideologies from nowhere. They must have started their journey,like us, by fulfilling the basic requirements of the people.

We have just begun our journey and we will reach there too. Throughout Bhutan’s history, we have been fortunate in having been led by enlightened Monarchs who have guided us with wisdom and foresight. While the path would have been swifter had the sacred institution of monarchy continued, it is through the transitions and challenges that we, as a people, have come to appreciate the profound responsibilities and sacrifices entailed in governing our nation. And as we forge ahead, our destination remains one of shared responsibility, resilience, and unity in shaping the destiny of our beloved nation.

Contributed by

Lily Wangchuk