As Bhutan completes 10 years of Democratic Constitutional Monarchy, representatives from the political parties gathered in Thimphu yesterday to discuss the state of democracy in Bhutan.
Held at the Royal University of Bhutan convocation hall, the forum was conducted to provide space for leaders, people, and the media to share their views on democracy.
The forum was aimed at giving people and political parties a much-needed open space in the election year for a healthy discussion on policies, issues, and national priorities.
BKP cautions about influence of money in elections
Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP) president Dasho Neten Zangmo, introducing herself as the youngest politician and the oldest citizen at the panel, started her opening statement by asking the floor, “Should there be a distinction between politician and citizens, an engineer and citizen, a teacher and citizen?”
She shared her experience as a politician for 11 months. “What is the level of trust among citizens, among neighbors, between citizens and government, between institutions, media fraternity and CSOs and government?”
Dasho Neten Zangmo said she visited six dzongkhags and found that people feel that their right comes after every five years. “Every five years, they are very important. But what after election?”
She said that every day people have to be important. Citizens just cannot be passive recipients but that there has to be space for the citizens voice. “Do we have the space? Do we feel that confidence in expressing your voice?”
The president also said that Bhutan needed more women representation in Parliament and in the decision making process but said that it was difficult to find women candidates.
Even at home, she said the father and mother have aspirations and desire of their own. “Similarly where is the women’s representation? I think women need to come forward.”
The BKP president questioned the lack of space for citizens to participate in the development process and said that people are not confident enough to raise their voices.
However, she said that many good things have happened, including the construction of roads built in various parts of Bhutan. “In terms of the softer aspect of democracy, I think we need to deeply think and remove our masks,” she said.
She said that the misunderstanding of apoliticalness has been a hindrance for democracy while democracy is about engagement dialogue, participation and confidence in each other, and trust. “How can we have a strong democracy in an environment of fear?”
Dasho Neten also cautioned about the influence of money in elections. “We have resigned to the fact that nothing can be done without money. Is that a sort of democracy we want?
Democracy not just about voting: DNT
Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) president Dr Tandi Dorji said Bhutan stands at 99th position in the democracy index among 167 countries in the world. He said the ranking portrayed fairly a good state of democracy in Bhutan.
Democracy, he said, was more than just about voting and the election process.
“We need to see the manner in which parties are seeking votes,” he said, adding that there is no real distinction between the ideologies of political parties.
“Goals are short-term – to grab power. Voters vote on the basis of promises,” Dr Tandi Dorji said. He added that it is unrealistic to expect that democracy would be perfect in just 10 years.
However, he also said that democracy was thriving and asked about the role of third parties in Bhutanese democracy. “What is the role of political parties outside the parliament?”
His party, he said, has been trying to engage itself effectively, keeping track of decisions taken at the national level. “We are trying to voice our point of view to the voters through the media. However, the recent decision by the High Court, in our case against the government, was that parties other than the opposition and government are not answerable and accountable to the people,” he said.
The dismissal of the case filed by his party against the government’s decision to grant fiscal incentives to private enterprises raises questions. “How then can we play our role more effectively?”
With the various provisions and acts, he said, it was difficult to carry out political activities.
Hate speech on social media should be addressed: DPT
DPT spokesperson Lily Wangchuk said she joined the party two months ago to better the state of Bhutanese democracy.
Today, she said, Bhutan has every reason to not only celebrate but also expend every resource it has to nurture a unique democracy in its truest sense and fulfill His Majesty’s vision for Bhutan and the world.
She said that Bhutan today was at a great risk of being affected with divisive politics, victimisation of supporters and differences over political choice affecting relationship between families and friends. She said families, friend and neighbours across the country have been torn apart by political parties and that with such challenges, Bhutanese are losing faith in politicians and democracy.
Lily Wangchuk stressed on the need to stop projecting politics and politicians negatively so as to attract the best in politics. “Our laws should also be flexible to allow the best from the civil service to join politics.”
A free media, Lily Wangchuk said, was an indicator of democracy. However, she added that it could also hijack election to disadvantage the better option.
She said social media is the devil in disguise when it comes to advancing false messages and negative campaigns that could put the future of the nation at stake.
“For instance social media is being used by political parties under fake identities to tarnish images of aspiring politicians, political parties, candidates. This is inciting fear, anger, resentment and greatly dividing the people.”
Lily Wangchuk said there is an urgent need to address the negative, fake coverage on social media and called upon authorities such as ECB, BICMA, and BMF to consider interventions, carry out civic education and launch awareness campaigns to educate voters to filter messages they receive.
She highlighted the need to respect and protect political parties and called upon the leaders and candidates of all political parties to end unhealthy political trends.
“To pursue a political party’s vested interest, one can even go to the extent of branding an entire party like DPT as anti-national party. If 45 percent of the population is supporting DPT, are we saying that some 45 percent of Bhutanese are anti-national? And anti against whom?”
She said that all Bhutanese she met have loyalty and devotion towards TsaWa-Sum. “No party or individual should claim monopoly of loyalty and dedication to the Throne and question another party’s or individual’s loyalty to the Throne and dedication to serve the TsaWa-Sum,” she said.
Saying that it is for the sake of a prospering democracy, she challenged the political parties and their leaders to sign a pledge committing to stay away from divisive politics. “Let us compete 2018 elections on our ideas and competence of our candidates so that the best can win, so that the people of Bhutan can win.”
Bhutanese democracy is thriving: PDP
Foreign minister Damcho Dorji said, “While I have not brought a mask with me, as a politician, I am compelled to wear many masks.”
Giving a brief background of Bhutan’s transition to Democratic Constitutional Monarchy, Damcho Dorji said that democracy didn’t evolve overnight.
“The highest achievement of 100 years of monarchy has been the constant nurturing of democracy,” he said.
Quoting the former Supreme Court chief justice Sonam Tobgye, Damcho Dorji said, “Democracy in Bhutan is evolutionary and not revolutionary.”
“I don’t want to paint a doomsday picture because it does not do justice to a shining model of a very young democracy,” Damcho Dorji said.
The foreign minister highlighted two unique aspects of Bhutanese democracy. Firstly, the democracy was a gift from the throne and secondly Bhutanese democracy has been a success in its first 10 years.
He said that democratic institutions have evolved and that other players have done their part.
“His Majesty The King has been the unifying force and symbol of unity. His Majesty also has been the driving force behind the proper establishment and strengthening of democracy in our country,” Damcho Dorji said.
He said that despite having very limited experience in governance, the first and the second parliaments have done a marvelous job. There was successful transition and implementation of the plans contributing to the progress of the country. However, he added that there were also skepticism and certain degree of perceived corruption.
Damcho Dorji suggested a need to create more transparency in the decision making process. “Of course there were apprehensions among the people because the debates in Parliament sometimes get hot.”
MB Subba and Nima