Politics: Even though political parties underline the need for active members, membership of the two oldest parties – Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have dwindled drastically.

A decline in membership means loss of revenue to the party’s exchequer that comes in the form of registration fees and voluntary contributions. It would also result in the loss the party’s support base.

From the largest political party in 2013, opposition DPT has been reduced to the smallest in terms of membership with only 80 registered members today. Three years back, the party had 799 registered members.

A total of 719 members have resigned since May 2013.

Right after the 2013 general election, 724 or 90 percent of DPT members deregistered their names within one year. Consequently, the party had only 75 members in 2014.

In contrast, PDP seemed to have benefited from the win in the general elections. Its membership kept increasing till 2015, when its membership reached 336 from 242 in 2013.

PDP did not have a large number of members, nor did it lose them in droves. Today however, PDP is the second smallest party with only 132 members.

However, membership has increased for Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP) and Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT).

BKP, which boasts of 424 registered members, is the largest party in terms of membership. It had 253 members in 2013.

DNT is the third largest party with 237 members. The party had 135 members in 2013.

Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT) saw a decline in membership from 587 members in 2013 to 352 in 2016. DCT is the second largest party in terms of membership.

These are as per the latest membership lists of political parties published by the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) in view of the recently concluded local government (LG) elections.

Parties attribute the resignation of their members to local government elections. However, DNT and BKP, both of which allowed their members to contest in the elections, saw an increase in the number of members instead.

DPT secretary general Ugyen Dorji said the members resigned citing lack of roles for members after the election period. “Most of the members found no roles after the election,” he said.

He added that most coordinators resigned to contest in the local government elections. However, he is hopeful membership will rebound as the next parliamentary elections are due in the next two years.

DPT believes that although most of its members have resigned, they have not withdrawn their support for the party. Many of those who resigned, the party says, have been elected to various posts in local governments.

PDP secretary general Sonam Jatsho said membership is likely to increase again as the LG elections have been concluded. He also said more people are expected to seek membership as the next parliamentary elections is approaching.

However, the party does not downplay the need to have active members for keeping the party machinery active. “Party members are very important especially during the election period when they have to shoulder responsibilities on behalf of the party,” Ugyen Dorji said.

The PDP secretary general said new members have recently registered with the party although the names are yet to be submitted to the ECB. Stressing the importance of membership, he said: “There will be a sense of belonging through membership.”

BKP president Sonam Tobgay said his party is continuously working to strengthen the party with the secretariat dedicated to enrolling new members amongst other responsibilities. He said people still walk into the party’s office wanting to be members.

“For BKP, we are not here only for elections but for posterity and value our members dearly and continuously stay in touch with them through telephone and SMS messages,” he said.

Sonam Tobgay said more membership will allow the party to raise funds through  membership , registration, and renewal fees. It also allows for voluntary contributions adding to the party exchequer, he said. “A larger membership base empowers BKP’s mandate in terms of representation and people support.”

“BKP is determined to win the 2018 elections and is working very hard to constitute both a competent team and a charismatic leader,” the BKP president said.

DNT claims that although the party is not openly soliciting membership, people are approaching the party for registration. To keep the membership intact and widen the support base, DNT says it keeps engaging with members on a regular basis.

DNT president Dr Tandi Dorji said: “Keeping in touch with our members is very important for us,” he said. He added that people see DNT as a “viable alternative”.

However Dr Tandi Dorji said he is not happy with the prevailing laws that he says discourage people from joining politics. “Members of political parties are treated as outsiders.”

He added that they are also restricted from many other opportunities.

With the “unfavourable” laws, he said grassroots membership will always be weak as people don’t want to be members of political parties. “We must have the humility to exercise flexibility in our laws to strengthen our political system,” he said.

According to him, having a larger membership means the party is more “popular and actable”. Otherwise, he said parties would be based only in Thimphu and active only during election time.

DCT president Lily Wangchuk said most of the party’s members have not resigned as they are “genuine supporters”. Some did deregister to contest in the LG elections and have won the elections, she said. The party is working “quietly but actively” for the next parliamentary elections.

“DCT is going to come back and stronger in 2018,” she said. She said DCT was the cleanest party in the last elections, saying that it did not get involved in any mudslinging and did not violate any election laws. “We believe that whoever we met voted for us,” she said.

Meanwhile, the last primary elections showed that the number of members does not necessarily translate into votes. While the party with the largest number of members, DPT, won the primaries, DCT, which had the second largest number of members came last.

MB Subba