Whenever there is a talk of an election, one of the most common issues people raise is about being political or apolitical.

This week, the Royal Civil Service Commission indicated to propose a cooling period to ensure that civil servants remain apolitical. The clarity on that is “apolitical” is confusing and remains the discretions of each institution. Neither the Constitution nor any other parliamentary Act or by-laws and regulations, including elections laws and rules define the concept of “political” or “apolitical”. The lack of such definitions may undermine the foundations of democratic values and only convenience few institutions to suit and ease their functions.

Going by the observations and reports from the past elections, the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) impose identical restrictions during any election irrespective of National Assembly, NC, or LG including restrictions to attend campaigns or participate in elections. Going by these observations, ECB treats all these elections as political in nature and, therefore, to ensure free and fair elections and to prevent from political influence, impose the same restrictions.

Article 26 (1) of our Constitution states that RCSC “Shall ensure an independent and apolitical civil service.”  Articles 11 (3) states that the National Council shall not belong to any political party, and Article 22 (17) states that “A candidate to or a member of the Local Governments (LG) shall not belong to any political party.”

Further, the preamble of the National Council (NC) Act 2008 recognises the NC as a principal apolitical institution of a vibrant democracy and the Section 15 bars NC members from becoming members of any political party and Section 175 of the NC Act emphasiz\ses the NC as the apolitical nature of Public Service and Section 164A of NC Amendment Act 2014 imposes the duty on the NC Member to be non-partisan and “shall neither be influenced by any political party in the performance of his/her function nor will he/she campaign for any political party or candidate.”

Similarly, LG Act requires the same in case of LG members. Thus, these laws make it clear that the National Council and the Local Government are completely apolitical and are no different from the Civil Service.

Now, if the cooling period is applied to NC and LG elections, it will equate NC and LG with NA elections, contravening these laws.

The right to vote is a fundamental to democracy. The right to vote entails informed choice which can achieve through a right to information.  The freedom of speech and expression is necessary for the right to scrutinise one’s candidate and take part in a discussion to make an informed decision. For example, civil servants or public servants are not permitted to attend any election campaigns during the elections to maintain apolitical in nature. How will these public servants make an informed choice?

Our democracy is a participative democracy. People’s participation must exist for building a vibrant democracy. Therefore, restrictions imposed by the ECB need proper scrutiny.

The restrictions must not affect the voter’s right to make informed decisions or prevents public servants from taking part in NC and LG elections merely on the ground of cooling period or being apolitical in nature. The parliament must define and provide clarity on the concepts of “apolitical” in nature.

Otherwise, in the name of the fair and free election or apolitical nature, the very essence of democracy could die.

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.