The local governments official have completed their term this week. The next LG election must be completed within ninety days.

Article 23 of the Constitution states that the general will of the people shoul be expressed through periodic elections”, which should be held in “a free and fair manner.”   Section 34 of the Election Act mandates the Election Commission to conduct “all elections to Parliament and Local Governments as well as of holding of National Referendums under the Constitution in a free and fair manner.”

Therefore, every time there is an election, the first and foremost issue is how fair and free the election have been and can be?  

The Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) issues numerous notifications in the name of a free and fair election. The recent notification states  that training, seminars, surveys, research, etc. in the coming months “would not only become a source of distraction for local authorities in the Dzongkhags during the election period but “could also hinder free and fair elections.”

However, the ever-increasing use of social media poses a more serious threat to free and fair elections compared to a physical gathering of people. The reach of social media is not only too wide but misinformation and election frauds are likely to be higher. If more restrictions are imposed on physical movement or gathering, more people will resort to social media.

ECB framed the “Social Media Rules and Regulations” to moderate and regulate the use of social media during the election period. It requires that “every user of the social media to carry out oversight duty and report to the election authorities any violation.”   The rules also require “every candidate to submit the addresses/links of the social media being used for election campaign to the Election Commission and bars any person from “communicating/transmitting/posting hate messages or any content with the intent to defame or reduce the electoral chances of an opposing contestant.” But these rules on social media do not have enough teeth to deal with the social media menace in the election.

The studies from many countries confirmed that “with easy access to political discussion, social media changes voters’ perceptions of one another, as well as candidates.” That is why many candidates use social media as a primary platform for the campaign.

The drawback of social media in LG elections is that those LG who has good social media-based might win over those candidates with less social media and destroy in many instances-many voters who have no social media presence in rural areas. For example, if a wrong message or misinformation is shared on multiple social media platforms against one candidate, ECB may not have the necessary resources to trace where and to whom such messages were shared. ECB enforce these rules to permanently erase this information.

Second, big tech companies determine what is an offensive post or misinformation or defamatory messages. Even powerful Presidents like Donald Trump are removed from social media only because Facebook and Twitter determined their speeches as offensive.

In short, these big techs determine control social media, not ECB.  What if the message is posted from outside Bhutan by a Bhutanese? This means the potential candidates can easily send the message from outside through their supporters as ECB’s jurisdiction is limited to Bhutanese territory.

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

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