A tricky issue that never got resolved

Tashi Dema 

Is there a level playing field in a bye-election? This is the question on many minds every time there is a bye-election. This is because the ruling government headed by the party president who is also the prime minister of the country is involved in the campaigning.

The question is being asked again as political campaigning is in full swing with the bye-election for the Chhoekhor-Tang constituency, Bumthang scheduled for November 19. Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering, in the capacity of the party president, is accompanying and campaigning for the party’s candidate, Dawa.

No rules are breached. The Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) authorised the Prime Minister to campaign as the party president. ECB officials said they allowed the prime minister in accordance with the Election Act of Bhutan 2008.

The chief of legal and communications division, Sonam Wangda, said section 267 of the Act allows a prime minister to campaign. The section states “every candidate and registered political party shall, subject to any restrictions imposed by this Act or under any law, be free to conduct an election campaign in the manner deemed appropriate by them.”

The Act does not however specify anything on the prime minister campaigning as party president and people, both rival party supporters and neutrals deem it inappropriate. It is considered unfair and not leaving a level playing field.

The Election Act’s Section 299 states that “no political party or its elected representatives in the National Assembly or any official holding a public office shall use their official position for influencing voters in favour of or against any party or candidate.” It however does not specify if a serving prime minister campaigning as a party president is considered or not considered holding an official position during the bye-election campaign period.

This is not the first time a prime minister has campaigned for a candidate in a bye-election.

In 2016, former Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay campaigned for the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate in the North Thimphu’s bye-election. In 2013, former agriculture minister Yeshey Dorji and then economic affairs minister Norbu Wangchuk campaigned for their candidate in Pemagatshel’s Nanong-Shumar bye-election.

Issues were raised in the past too, but no complaints were raised or lodged with the Election Commission of Bhutan. The issue is again brought up with many saying it is difficult to distinguish whether Dr Lotay Tshering is the prime minister or the party president during the campaign period.

“The prime minister had been going around claiming that the ruling government has the authority to bring developmental activities and they would blacktop Chhoekhortoe farm road if people vote for their candidate,” said a Chhoekhor resident, Tshering.  “Where is the level-playing field Election Commission has been claiming to ensure?”

He also said Lyonchhen is claiming to be in the capacity of a party president but he is the prime minister and once he is in Bumthang, he is addressed as the PM, not as party president. “How do we draw the line here?”

A former National Council member said he had raised the issue in 2016 when the former prime minister was campaigning for North Thimphu candidate. He said it is ethically wrong for the prime minister to campaign, as he would still receive his salary as prime minister.

There are others who believe that people are complaining because it is of disadvantage to their candidate. “Election Commission allowed the prime minister to campaign because the law allows it,” a retired civil servant said.

Others justified that the Prime Minister travelled in a private vehicle and did not use any government resources or machineries during the campaign. ECB officials said if government machineries are used, the opponent would complain and they did not receive any complaints.

Clarity in the sections of the Act spelling out whether a serving prime minister could campaign as the president, meanwhile, seems to be the best bet.