Bishal Rai 

The low voter turnout at the recently concluded fourth National Assembly Election, underpins a fading spirit and political lethargy among the public and for reasons both political and apolitical. 

Of the 498,235 registered voters, 326,775 cast their vote, summing up a 65.5 percent voter turnout at the 9 January 2024 General Election. 

But when viewed from the other end, a total of 171,460 registered voters, or 34.5 percent, abstained or declined to vote, signalling an increase in the number of voters to do so when compared to the past elections. This was, despite a cumulative increase of 58,395 registered voters in the past few years, according to media reports. 

Voter turnout for the National Assembly election in 2008 was 79.38 percent, in 2013 it was 66.13 percent, and in 2018 it was 71.46 percent.

A closer examination of those who abstained to vote reveal a mix of issues that can be summed up as economic, social, and political. 

For one, the accompanying cost of voting deterred many from travelling back home to cast their vote. The customary norm of giving away money, as soelra, to one’s relatives, family members, even neighbours who come to greet and meet, usually left the visitor highly appreciated, intoxicated, while also poorer, according to a Thimphu resident from Monggar. 

I was not going to spend about Nu 70,000 in such a way, twice, he added, indicating why he did not vote in the General Election. The economic cost of a vote, therefore, deterred many residing and working in another district from casting their vote. 

Perhaps even more concerning, however, was when the public assumed their vote did not count and preferred not to cast their vote. This happened on occasions such as when a promise by a political party was not fulfilled, said Tashi Tenzin of Trashigang. 

A report by the national media recently, on the failure to provide drinking water to a community in Pemagatshel in East Bhutan for the past 15 years, exemplified a case in point. 

However, this pattern of decreasing voter turnout, or in other words, the evident declining public interest in voting was felt across the wide spectrum of democracies around the world – be it the oldest, the largest, evolving, or fragile. 

Gallup surveys pointed to a lack of trust for politicians and elected government as a result of their questionable performance, and a lack of accountability. Though such a source was not available to provide scientifically validated evidence back home, the responses from the public shared some similarities. 

Shyam Chettri, 32, from Ugyenste, Samtse, said the party candidates appeared at their doorstep during the time of election, with a list of promises, and were not heard of after that. 

“We do not expect them to fulfil the pledges and promises, but it would be comforting to see them at least engaging more often with us, taking interest in public life, and representing the public,” said another resident.  

It was evident that the quick high of campaign pledges and promises had lost its populist appeal even to the rural folks.

It perhaps explained the dwindling attendance of wary and disaffected public at forums organised as part of political campaigns. The media reported that at times the number of political party representatives far outnumbered the public at such forums.

Parag Khanna in his book The Future is Asian writes compellingly that the democracy’s inclusiveness must combine with technocracy’s effectiveness – of being meritocratic, and utilitarian – in devising policies using data for long-term planning. And that democratic feedback was crucial for the government to ensure they were on the right track. 

He points that democracy was about deciding and crafting holistic policy, by listening to the public, as well as to the experts of subject matter. It was also about being agile – in reversing the policy and course-correct when required. 

A quick scan of democracies around reveals elected governments facilitating and encouraging comments and opinion from the public on policies and decisions and acting on it accordingly. However, sometimes the government also sought to crack down on the public for negative comments and critical opinions. 

An observer in Thimphu said in Bhutan as well, it was necessary for the elected representatives to listen to the public of her/his constituency to serve as the basis for decisions and policy adoption. Debates, dialogues, comments, surveys, and petitions were forms of public participation and consultations that elected representatives could use to engage with their voters, post elections. 

Afterall, he said, the elected representative should also pay attention to their own performance, which would positively contribute in enhancing the public satisfaction and influencing their attitude.   

Literature points that following the end of the Cold War in 1991, the western democracy’s national ethos of a free world no longer animated the growing middle class, and the younger generation, whose attention had shifted to economic empowerment, and inclusive political participation.  

Today, the Bhutanese public was connected and informed with access to real time information and knowledge. Listening to them, during the election campaign, revealed that they were aware of the nation-wide challenge posed by stagnant economy, high unemployment, and depopulation.  

Therefore, it is also time that we seek our elected representatives’ capacities beyond mobile phone vouchers and school admissions, said Kencho, a resident of Genekha, Thimphu.  

Coming to the issue of getting the remaining voters to the polling booths in future elections, having accountable politicians as well as voters could be the way forward, said an observer. “Postal Ballot Facilitation booths and Postal Ballots could facilitate voting and improve voter turnout, as in treating the symptoms but not the disease.”