Six political parties to contest in the 2023-24 Assembly elections

Dechen Dolkar 

Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP) began their tendrel yesterday. The newest party kicked off their familiarisation tour from the old capital of Bhutan, Punakha.  In the capital, Thimphu, Druk Thendrel Tshogpa (DTT) is leaving no ears unturned as they meet and greet potential voters and introduce the party – talking and walking around the city.

With the two new parties joining the fray, Bhutan will have six political parties contesting in the upcoming National Assembly elections making it the most-contested primary round of the parliamentary elections. 

In the meantime, the first registered political party Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and the current ruling party, Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) even if they need no introduction, are gearing up for the elections. While some candidates, including serving members of Parliament, are already in the constituencies, new candidates are being declared almost on a daily basis. 

It is not confirmed if one of the earliest parties, Bhutan Kuen-nyam Party would contest. The president had denied reports that the party is considering deregistration. The party said that BKP will make an announcement sometime between this month and next month. Even without BKP, there will be five political parties – one party for every 87,732 eligible voters if we take the 438,663 registered eligible voters in 2018.

Led by the party president, Kinga Tshering, who will be contesting from North Thimphu constituency, DTT, the first of the two new parties is  pitching itself as a party “promoting a peaceful sovereign nation united on the pursuit of a prosperous nation.” The party has almost completed its FAM (familiarisation) tour and has declared 20 candidates so far. According to the party, all the 47 provisional candidates are confirmed.

Having started early, DTT has established a headquarter in Trashigang as its eastern HQ. It is branding itself to be a better choice than the existing parties. While there are no clear ideologies, Kinga Tshering earlier told Kuensel that one of the party’s unique features would be that it would adopt a bottom-up approach in the decision-making process through consultation with the people. DTT officials said they have learnt from the mistakes and weaknesses of the established parties.

BTP, according to the party president, Dasho Pema Chewang,  is taking part in the elections to bring about much-needed change in the lives of the people by creating a robust national economy with a particular focus on household income. When it was launched last week, party officials said that it believes in creating an enabling environment for everyone in the country to “unleash their full potential.” Making use of technology to rationalise and improve public service is a major focus of the party.

Together with the vision of “Narrowing the Gap,” a “Better Drukyul,” “A sovereign and prosperous nation of enlightened citizens committed to the pursuit of Gross National Happiness through growth with equity and justice, economic self-reliance, social harmony, environmental integrity, and political justice,” the choice is there for Bhutanese as we prepare for another round of Assembly elections.

Where are the candidates?

The first question on many minds is the candidates. With six parties, the pool to choose candidates is limited. 

According to BTP officials, the party has “a mix of highly capable and competent candidates from a wide range of educational backgrounds, experience, and age”. They also said that all 47 candidates, including three women, are confirmed and the party will start revealing its candidates from time to time since some of them are serving civil servants. The earlier rumours that BTP will not accept candidates from other political parties has been clarified by the president saying that they are looking for candidates who are not only capable but humble and especially those who can empathise with common people.

The National Council, it seems, is now the hunting ground for candidates for all the parties except DNT and DPT who are still serving as the ruling and opposition party. Neutrality means winibility.

Claimed to be apolitical and neutral, the new parties, it is said, are after  NC members as they are not affiliated with the other political parties. Kuensel learnt that political parties have approached current NC members and former NC members with some of them already accepting the offer. Around 15 percent of the current NC members are joining political parties, according to sources.

DTT, who many accused of being an offshoot of  DPT has only five candidates from DPT. The party president, Kinga Tshering from North Thimphu, vice-president Dr Changa Tshering from Thrimshing-Kangpar constituency, Tashi Dorji of Radi-Sakteng constituency,  Kewal Ram Adhikari from Sergithang-Tsirangtoed Constituency, and Dr Sonam Wangyel Wang from Limukha-Toewang constituency were former DPT candidates.

While BTP has not announced its candidates, there are some former National Council members who are with the party and few former candidates of other political parties. Many of the NC members whose tenure ended are being linked with both the old and new political parties. 

PDP has 11 new candidates with seven new joining the party. One of its members has joined BTP. Those following the political development closely say that parties have to go after NC members as they are known to be neutral and experienced with some serving three consecutive terms. “The logic is that if you can win from a dzongkhag (NC’s constituency) you can win from the constituency,” said a former editor of a newspaper. “The priority for the five or six parties is to get through the primary round.”

More not merrier, always

While many wonder if Bhutan would need six political parties for a population of 650,118 people ( as of 2022), many say choice is important. Given that no political party has ruled for two consecutive terms, one expectation is that a new party would at least win the primary round.

“Going by the past three elections, the incumbency factor could be decisive. Let’s not be surprised if a new party becomes the ruling party or at least the opposition party,” said a retired politician. “Bhutanese voters cannot be trusted. They are so nice and give chances to newcomers.”

A political observer, Ugyen Tshering, said that while choices matter, too many parties contesting is an extra burden to the state. “Can we afford so many political parties? It is going to be the most expensive election,” he said.

Others feel that there will be a dearth of candidates compromising the quality of a political party. “Some candidates are not joining political parties because they believe in the party ideology, but simply to get elected,” said one. Another political observer said that even if the six political parties recycle the same old candidates, it is still a positive development because choice is critical in a democracy.

The Secretary General of PDP, Kuenga Tashi is upbeat about new parties getting registered. “In addition to providing voters choice, the vote share being divided among five parties is expected to give PDP a distinct competitive advantage,” he said. 

Talks of new parties looking for fresh faces is seen as an advantage. “There is a consensus among the people that for our nation’s development, we cannot afford to experiment with entirely fresh hands for a position as crucial as forming a government,” he said.  “Governance is not a training ground. Only five years is available for political parties to plan, prioritise, mobilize funds, execute and serve.” 

Former minister, Lekey Dorji, said new political parties contesting in the 2023 elections is good as it provides choices to the people. 

“Our people are mature now and understand politics better. They will certainly choose competent political parties or candidates to serve them for the next five years,” Lekey Dorji said.

The race has only started. The current government ends its term in November.  Only time will tell if Bhutanese will elect a new government, opposition, or if DNT will be the first party to rule for two consecutive terms.