As Bhutan gears up for yet another democratic exercise to elect its parliamentary representatives, it is an occasion to reflect on the country’s journey towards democratic maturity. Elections form the bedrock of any democratic society, and their outcomes must unequivocally mirror the will of the people. While the democratic process relies heavily on the participation of political parties, it is imperative that the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) plays an active and vigilant role in ensuring the integrity of this process.

The five political parties have submitted their draft manifestos to the ECB, a standard procedure in the run-up to elections. The Commission’s primary responsibility involves the registration of political parties willing to participate in elections and ensuring that they meet the necessary legal requirements. However, the question arises: Should the ECB’s involvement end here, or should it extend to evaluating and, if necessary, restricting the content of these manifestos?

Suffrage, the right to vote, is the cornerstone of any functioning democracy. It empowers citizens to engage in the democratic process, allowing them to influence the course of their nation’s governance. This right must be cherished, protected, and respected above all else.

The ECB, as the guardian of Bhutan’s electoral process, has a pivotal role in fostering a vibrant democratic culture. It should serve as a watchdog, committed to upholding principles of fairness, transparency, and equal access to the electoral platform for all political parties. The Commission’s mission should be to create an environment where citizens can freely exercise their right to choose their leaders based on their individual beliefs, values, and preferences.

Crucially, the ECB should act as an impartial referee, ensuring that the electoral process remains just and equitable for all participants.

One of the hallmarks of a mature democracy is the availability of diverse political choices. By limiting or evaluating the content of political party manifestos beyond the confines of legal requirements, the ECB inadvertently risks curtailing the range of options presented to the electorate. Such a restriction can undermine the democratic process, as it may not adequately represent the broad spectrum of ideas and opinions held by the citizens.

The ECB’s involvement in assessing or restricting manifestos also has the potential to undermine the principles of free and fair elections. It could create an environment in which political parties feel compelled to conform to certain norms or ideologies, stifling their ability to present innovative solutions or alternative perspectives. This could, in turn, compromise the vibrancy of Bhutan’s hard-earned democracy.

However, it is essential to clarify that the ECB’s role should not entail scrutinising manifestos for ideological alignment, achievable pledges, or national interests. Rather, its focus should remain on ensuring that manifestos do not contain pledges that are unattainable or against the national interest, such as unachievable infrastructure projects or policies that could harm the nation.