A woman in Orong calls out another, asking her to accompany her to the common forum.

The woman responds that it’s too hot and she has lots of work to do at home. “Moreover, my husband is attending,” she said from the window.

The other woman jokes what if the party candidates hand out something (gifts).

“You can take my share too,” the other retors.

This conversation takes place right below the venue of the common forum at the gewog centre in Samdrupjongkhar on August 29.

The gewog showed a lukewarm response similar to that in all the five forums in the Dewathang-Gomdar constituency.

The turnout at the common forums of the primary round of National Assembly elections 2018 has been not impressive, candidates said.

They, however, say they understand the difficulties of the villagers and do not want to blame the people.

In all the gewogs, only one representative from a  household came to attend the meetings. In most, the turn out was not even half the number of voters, candidates said.

“Ideally, everyone in the household should come to listen to their candidates,” Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP) president and candidate from Dewathang-Gomdar, Neten Zangmo said.

She said that the common forum is different from other meetings.  “This attitude has to be changed, and we can do it through good governance. People have to bear the responsibilities.”

Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) candidate, Thinley Namgyel, said there has to be a way to improve the turnout.

“If only one person attends the common forum and the rest of the family do not, then they would be influenced by his understanding of the pledges and ideologies,” he said. “This would not be fair and people cannot make independent decisions.”

Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) candidate, Ugyen Dorji, said that the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) has this time not allowed candidates to hold meetings at chiwog level besides the common forum.

He said that ECB’s decision is irrational and antithetical for democracy. “Given the time constraints, only 15 days left, how much of the 3,000 households in the five gewogs can we cover,” he said.

People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) candidate, Wangdi Gyaltshen, said that common forum should be taken as close to the people as possible. “Many people living in the far-flung areas can’t come to the gewog,” he said.

Candidates said in some gewogs they have to walk five hours.

A candidate said that if at all, the door-to-door campaign should be discouraged as many illegal things could happen during this period.

Samdrupjongkhar’s election officer, Norbu Wangdi, said the turnout to common forums is gradually increasing. “People are more aware of the significance to attend such forums and the number has been increasing.”

He said earlier at one point in a constituency, there were more officials conducting the forum than those attending. “There is about 10 percent increase in participants compared to the turnout during the common forums for National Council elections.”

The lowest turnout was in Samdrupjongkhar thromde where 30 voters, including 16 women attended the forum on August 30.

The thromde has more than 200 registered voters according to the candidates.

The poor turnout for meetings is not limited to common forums, gewog officials said. For full attendance, some gewogs even impose fines on those absent.

In Wangphu gewog, if a household misses a meeting or zomdu, then the head of the house has to pay Nu 215. Therefore, many gomchens turned up for the common forum in the gewog on August 28.

The hot weather makes it worse for those attending.

In Wangphu and Gomdar gewogs, there was no electricity for the entire day. In most meeting halls, there was a strong smell of sweat. Some reeked of alcohol too.

Meanwhile, in Tsirang, common forum in five gewogs has been completed. In all the gewogs, between 100-150 voters turned up to attend the common forum. More than 800 people attended the forum in the five gewogs altogether.

Tshering Palden | Orong