Free and fair election is the fundamental to true democracy. His Majesty the great fourth said “for a democracy to function well in our country, it is of paramount importance to have a good election process ensuring free and fair elections, facilitating selection of good and capable candidates for representing the greater interest of the nation and common interest of its people. Article 23, Section 1 of the Constitution reflects this wisdom-the general will of the people shall be the basis of government” through elections. 

The Constitution mandates the Election Commission to facilitate free and fair elections. ECB framed numerous by-laws, regulations, and guidelines under the Election Act. However, with numerous regulations with the best intentions, it can jeopardize the informed decision.   

To balance this thin line, the Constitution enshrines the fundamental right to information, freedom of speech and opinion to foster and encourage scrutinization of the candidates. The right to information imposes the obligation on the state- ECB to ensure that voters have access to know and understand their candidates so that they make an informed decision to choose the right candidate to represent them through the will of the people in the vote.

The ECB regulates the electoral process mainly through the regulation of political parties, candidates, media, social media, and the conduct of voters. Such regulations are important. For example, political parties can resort to all forms of strategies to win the vote, similarly, not all candidates are on equal footing. Media, including social media, shouldn’t operate unrestricted. It has a serious impact on the decision-making process of the voters.

 However, the regulations must be reasonable and facilitate making an informed decision. For example, in the past, public officials including local government officials were not permitted from attending campaigns even in their own constituencies, and voters were given the opportunity to ask questions to their candidates about their promises. Such restriction while with the best intentions inhibits the ability of voters to make an informed decision as public officials have no idea what was said during the campaign in their constituency. Similarly, at the end of every term, it has become a ritual of the government including the opposition party and national council members to visit their constituency in the name of the constituency visit on public funding while those outside the parliament are deprived of such opportunity. How do we draw the line between political campaign, familiarisation tour and constituency visit? These are not mathematically drawn evidence to say none are political campaigns. Should we relook at these and reform them?

 The informed decision is becoming more important not only because of the major transformation within the country but how representatives can protect the national interest beyond our territory.  Geopolitically, Bhutan is vulnerable and strategic. Only well-informed decisions can bring the best in power. There are numerous reports of Bhutanese suffering at the mercy of bigger players in the region, which needs to address to protect Bhutan’s long-term interest. 

 This week, the Economist Intelligence Unit considered Bhutan one of the world’s least democratic countries in 2022 in a democracy index 2022 and ranked 84th position where Bhutan’s democracy hybrid democracy is just above countries like Tunisia, Liberia, Ukraine, Mexico, and Honduras. ECB’s role is limited to facilitating free and fair elections. Thus, as embark on another election any restrictions must be limited to ensure a free and fair process. 

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

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