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With about three months remaining to go for the third National Assembly election, members of political parties say the narrow concept of apolitical-ness has been a major constraint in getting a level playing field.

Speaking at the Royal University of Bhutan convocation hall in Thimphu to discuss the state of Bhutan’s democracy on May 11, Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party president Dasho Neten Zangmo said all resources are at the disposal of the government and the Opposition, while parties outside Parliament did not have such a privilege.

The forum was organised by Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy to give political parties space in the election year for a healthy discussion on policies, issues, and national priorities.

“I think we really need to redefine the apolitical nature of institutions like the local government and other institutions,” she said. The confusion about its concept, she said, has kept political parties away from the electorate.

She said officials like gups could play an important role in creating civic education and providing a level playing field for all political parties. “And of course, most importantly the Election Commission of Bhutan. They just cannot issue orders saying you can do this, you cannot do that,” she said.

“Why do we become different when we become politicians?” Dasho Neten Zangmo asked.

She said she learnt that the divisive force is the party apparatus at the grassroots. “We need party apparatus to mobilise the crowd for the meetings. Why can’t the local government do that?”

Spokesperson of Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, Lily Wangchuk, said aspiring political parties and politicians are not allowed to have any interaction with students, civil servants, who comprise the educated lot. She also attributed this to the narrow definition of the word apolitical.

“Especially during the campaign period, the only people we get to interact with are rural voters. The urban voters are supposed to make their choice based on the media coverage, in which case the voters’ political choice would be influenced if the media coverage is biased,” Lily Wangchuk said.

She said that political parties are supposed to give voice to the people. “But we have no opportunity to interact with the people.”

Founding member of Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa, Dr Tandi Dorji, said there is no incentive for people at the grassroots level to join political parties. “Instead, they lose the opportunity to take part in local government elections.”

This, he said, was one of the reasons for people to become active only during the election year. “With the present set up, it is very difficult for political parties to have their presence at the grassroots,” he said.

Foreign minister Damcho Dorji, who was also one of the members of the constitution drafting committee, said that while political parties were necessary in a democratic system, there were meritocracies in keeping institutions and bodies apolitical.

The apolitical nature of institutions, he said, would help maintain a check and balance on political parties.

Dasho Neten Zangmo said that if there were no level playing field for all parties, the established parties would continue to dominate the field. “Otherwise, it will be – democracy by the political party, by the political party, and for the political party,” she said. “At the end of the day, the local government is highly politicised. I think we should not be in that environment of dos and don’ts.”

MB Subba

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