The recent Round Table Meeting in Thimphu is a reaffirmation of Bhutan’s preparedness and readiness to graduate from the status of the Least Developed Nation to a middle-income country. It is heartening that the unilateral decision of our Kings to democratise the nation is the best that has happened to Bhutan: that democracy is the best means to attain the common well-being and dignity of living to the people.
Our democracy, a culmination of the evolution of century old good governance honed under an atmosphere of peace and prosperity by the monarchs is poised to reap its dividends with the achievement of all millennium development goals, universal primary enrolment, free primary health care services, and basic infrastructure coverage such as access to motorable roads, electricity, drinking water supply, irrigation and mobile connectivity with national capacity to deliver humanitarian services earning the goodwill of the international community as a GNH country. We are carbon neutral, produce organic food, and a thriving culture and tradition adapted to modern technologies.
Bhutan today has already sent a satellite designed and built by Bhutanese and seriously contemplates harnessing artificial intelligence to further our national aspirations. Smart phones and digital technology link every Bhutanese with the world.
As Bhutan graduates to a middle-income country, we are confident that it will be a matter of time before it aspires to be among the community of advanced Nations.
The positive account of the Kingdom under ten years of democracy as reported in the Bhutan National Human Development Report 2018 is the greatest tribute to His Majesty The Fourth Druk Gyalpo who crafted the Constitution transitioning from absolute monarchy to a Democratic Constitutional Monarchy.
The Constitution had enshrined in it that“the Sovereign power belongs to the people of Bhutan” which is not possible to be exercised by every Bhutanese but only through their elected representatives as MPs, Tshogpas andThuemis.
From among the MPs in the National Assembly and National Council, cabinet ministers including the Prime Minister; the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly; Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the National Council; Dzongkhag Tshogdu and Gewog Tshogde Chairs, Thromde Thrompons, Thuemis etc… appointed, who singly or collectively, exercise the sovereign powers as direct and true representative of the people.
Such important positions cannot be regarded as mere jobs created for the sake of providing gainful job to the unemployed but to be filled up by persons endowed with leadership traits and qualification that does not exclude academic qualification and through elections.
Given the above context, it has become essential to educate the national authors of the Report at least on the following challenges and recommendations, even though these are not new and of any significance, and the historic account of the special feature of Bhutan’s democracy, as an insider’s perspective:
Correction of Gender imbalance in Politics
It is important that Bhutan does not have any legal or administrative barrier that impedes women of participation in electoral democracy. In all spheres of modern Bhutanese society, the percentage of women participation is rising very fast. It will be a matter of time, as is with the voting that the percentage of women elected to the elected posts will rise. There is no proven evidence where interested and qualified women in Bhutan are being deprived of the opportunity from participation in democracy on the grounds of gender. Electing women for the sake of electing women serve none any purpose.
Education of Youth in politics
If Bhutanese youth are only learning the rituals of politics, it is in itself to be regarded as an achievement given the short history of advent of democracy. Efforts to focus on civics and the culture of democracy-ideology and values-more than the mechanics of elections and governance is not spared. Measures are in pursuit for civic education and political science being introduced as a field of study among the stakeholders. The Democracy Clubs in schools and Bhutan Children’s Parliament, Bhutan Democracy Dialogue, V-VOICE etc… initiatives are in place to prepare more youth to participate and be more aware about democracy and elections, over and above the voter education routinely being carried out.
Voting by the Religious in Elections
It is not right to equate that the accord of status to religious personalities and institutions to remain above politics to be regarded as a ban from politics or denial of their democratic rights. It was in the best interest of the religious persons to keep religion above politics, separate and away from politics. It is a constitutional requirement and not statutory. Religious personalities are expected to devote their efforts towards the promotion of peace and spiritual development for the society, without participation in the electoral process as a voter, candidate, member or supporter for a political party. They shall not indulge in election campaigning or resort to discrimination of people, parties and candidates on grounds of belief and faith to ensure a secular political system.
Waiver of degree qualification requirements
Given the success of Bhutan’s free education, the country is now faced with the challenge of unemployment of educated Bhutanese. A lot of university degree holders work abroad. Bhutan has its universities and private colleges. Therefore, Bhutanese democracy, learning from lessons elsewhere and wisdom from its development administration and governance enacted a law that requires parliamentarians to have a minimum academic qualification of a university degree. It demands only a few hundred-degree holders from among several thousand university degree holders to run its state affairs.
The number of educated Bhutanese will even multiply with the governing parties’ commitment to liberalise higher secondary education. At a time when Bhutan can boast that even lower posts of drivers, messengers do demand a minimum of a high school certificates, we hope the report is not implying that the qualification requirement of all international positions as redundant.
Reading the Report, one could not help but conclude that the Bhutanese sensitivities and attachment for things and issues that truly concerns Bhutan, that formed the salient features of Bhutanese democracy such as the qualification requirement in elections, sanctity of elevating the position of religious personalities and freeing them from the miseries of partisan conflicts as it was with the members of royalty and having in place preventive security measures that can ensure peaceful and fair electoral contests, bereft of any fear, be it physical or psychological were deliberately overlooked.
These features of our electoral democracies were found to be innovative and were envied by older democracies as theirs were entrenched with questionable antecedents leading to electoral contest fraught with violence and crime. Results of their elections were more often contested both from within and from abroad. Because they had failed to have in place measures such as ours that safeguard their democracies from criminals, sectarian feuds and pressure from muscle and money powers.
While Bhutan can welcome useful recommendations that strengthen our democratic systems to serve as meaningful means for good governance, we need to be mindful not to be swayed by vested and academic interests.
It is sad that State institutions and the lead authors had used the opportunity to declare vital aspects of our democratic systems, as not statutory and/or constitutional. Are they and the Report endorsing that as constitutional the minors, criminals and non-registered voters be enfranchised?
Former Chief Election Commissioner of Bhutan.