Availability of tickets appears to be a common reason

As political parties gear up for the elections due later this year and are declaring candidates, many eyebrows were raised with candidates switching parties. 

While many questioned how the founding president of Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT), Lily Wangchuk, could join Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), the recent surprise has been the two former National Council members, Sonam Dorji of Dagana and Sangay Khandu of Samtse, joining People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

They are not the first candidates to switch parties.

Earlier this year, the former information and communications minister from DPT, Nandalal Rai from Sarpang’s Shompangkha constituency joined PDP while former DPT MP Hemant Gurung joined Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT). Another former DPT MP of Bji-Kartshog-Uesu of Haa, Ugyen Tenzin, also joined DNT. DPT’s 2008-2013 MP, Sonam Penjor from Kengkhar-Weringla constituency in Mongar also joined PDP.

Former DNT candidate, Kamal Dan Chamling will contest for DPT from Samtse’s Phuentshopelri constituency this time. Former Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP) candidate, Karma Thinley joined DPT from Wamrong constituency in Trashigang. 

Former DNT candidate, Singye Namgyel (PhD) from Khar-Yurung constituency in Pemagatshel has switched to BKP. 

In the 2013 general elections, seven DNT candidates, including the economic affairs minister Lekey Dorji, education minister Norbu Wangchuk, Speaker Jigme Zangpo and works and human settlement minister Dorji Choden switched to PDP after the primary elections.

Other DNT candidates that hopped to PDP are Jomotsangkha MP Pelzang Wangchuk, Tshering from Panbang and Kinley Dorji from Radhi-Sagteng.

Such party hopping has raised questions on if candidates are only looking for a ticket to contest the elections and how they identify with the party ideologies.

Questions are asked on what it meant when PDP took two DPT candidates, Nandalal Rai and Sonam Penjor.

Lily Wangchuk said that she decided to join DPT as she related to their ideology of equity and justice. “They fully welcomed my ideas related to varied social issues concerning common people, women, youth, senior citizens and the disabled. I was approached by two political parties but I chose DPT as it was clean, committed and above all gave me adequate space to fulfil the very reason why I even embraced politics in 2008- to be the voice of people whose voices have not been heard. Politics has never been about me and will never be.”

She said that to play her part as a citizen in nation building, she resigned from both the foreign service and UNDP Bhutan to work voluntarily as the head of women and youth wing for PDP in 2008. “I aspired to represent the voices of women and youth in the party. However, in a male dominated environment it was a challenge to push most of my ideas for women and youth empowerment forward.”

In 2011, Lily Wangchuk said that she was approached by a large group of men from humble background to join a party they intend to start. “With much hard work, within only four months we succeeded in forming a new party and in getting registered. As founding member of DCT, I succeeded in ensuring a strong social agenda for the party,”she said. “However, given the time constraints we were unable to perform well in 2013 elections making us ineligible for state funding for 2018 elections.”

Sangay Khandu, as a former chimi, gained popularity as one of the most vocal local representatives then. In 2008, many believe that he played a major role, as a party supporter in DPT’s win in Samtse.

He said that no media questioned when DPT didn’t give him a ticket in 2013. He said he decided to contest in the national council elections because he had no other options to serve his people. “But by serving for five years in NC, an apolitical body, I have detached myself from all political parties.”  

He said he chose PDP over other parties because of the dynamic leadership and members.

Sangay Khandu said when he contested in NC in 2013, he was determined that he would not re-contest in NC and his supporters know that he would join a party. “They were waiting for my decision. I now have to go there, meet them and plan our way forward.”

He said if people have trust and confidence in him in serving them, they will support him irrespective of the party he joins.

Sonam Dorji, who will now contest from Drujeygang-Tseza constituency from Dagana, said that while he contemplated re-contesting for NC, he thought he was being selfish, as people gave him the opportunity to serve twice.

He said he discussed with his supporters who advised him to join a party. “PDP approached me and gave me the opportunity. I joined PDP because I appreciated the government’s performance in the last five years and Prime Minister’s leadership.”

He also said he would use his last 10 years of experience to build consensus between the two houses and show the way forward for MPs to not go totally along party lines. “I hope it will help in streamlining the system.”

Ugyen Tenzin, in an earlier interview, said he joined DNT because DPT replaced him in 2013 elections.

Singye Namgyel then said that BKP stands for neutrality, resilience, a corruption free system, clean politics, beyond five years and beyond self, and that some of these principles are in line with his. “With BKP as a platform, I believe I will be able to contribute to some of the larger national causes outlined by the Throne.”

Many candidates indicated that they joined a particular party because of the ticket. 

A serving MP, who is contemplating to hop parties, said most candidates look at the probability to win from the constituency while choosing a party. “We have to look at which party and leader are more popular among the constituents.” 

He said he doesn’t think any candidate would go by the party ideology. “I don’t even know if there is one. Whichever party comes to power will implement the five-year-plans.”

Observers following politics closely, however, say that switching affiliation is expected in a young democracy. 

Law allows party hopping, as the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) then allowed DNT members to join PDP on the ground that doing so offered an opportunity to the electorate of a specific constituency to vote for a candidate of popular choice.

ECB also cited 209(c) of the Election Act, which states that a person shall be deemed to be duly nominated to contest an election to the National Assembly, “If he or she is a member of a registered political party which could not qualify for the General Elections but is admitted as a member and nominated as a candidate by a political party to contest in the General Election. However, his or her membership in the original political party shall be forfeited.” 

Tashi Dema