With 12 constituencies, 34% of the voter population, and no party president, parties look south for votes 

Rinzin Wangchuk 

The ground is set. There are five political parties registered to contest the Fourth National Assembly elections in 2023-24. Two new parties will compete with three old parties led by former prime ministers and the leader of the opposition party. Will it be a contest between old and new parties? Will incumbency matter? Would voters again go with a new political party as in the past?

The political momentum hit the brakes with the National Council elections taking over the attention. However, as political parties discuss their strategies during the break, one strategy coming out clear is looking southwards –  the southern dzongkhags.

Without a party president, but with a significant voter population, constituencies, and past voting patterns deciding elections, both primary and general, the southern dzongkhags could be what is called in the west, the swing states (dzongkhags). They could decide who becomes the government and the opposition.

All five party presidents are from eastern or northern Bhutan. It is expected that party presidents would make a difference as they become the Prime Minister if elected. The presidents are from Thimphu, Haa, Trashigang, and Zhemgang. The analysis is that when the votes get divided into dzongkhags or constituencies represented by a party president, political parties would try to woo voters in those constituencies without a president.

Observers say that none of the political parties has a distinct advantage in terms of leadership. “We see all party leaders are at the same level of maturity, experience, and oratory skills,” a former newspaper editor who is closely following the political development in the country said.  “Therefore, casting votes based on the candidates’ competence can be a good option this year.”

The Five dzongkhags of Samtse, Sarpang, Tsirang, Dagana, and Chukha had 161,027 registered voters (34 percent of the total registered voters) as of 2021.  Samtse with four constituencies and 51,300 eligible (for the 2021 LG elections) will be a key battleground.

In the past three elections, the dzongkhags elected their member of Parliament (MPs) in the ruling government consecutively for three terms. There are 12 constituencies in the dzongkhags, which played a major role in electing governments both in primary and general elections.

For instance, in 2018, Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) secured maximum votes of 10,050 from Samtse followed by 6,759 and 6,064 votes from Sarpang and Dagana respectively in the primary round of the National Assembly elections. Four parties contested in the primary round on September 15, 2018.

In the general elections held on October 18, 21,786 voters in four constituencies of Samtse voted for DNT while 12,592 voters favoured Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT). Samtse also played a similar role in 2013. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) who came to power secured 21,002 from Samtse while DPT could manage only 8,915 votes.


Will Samtse make the difference?

Since Samtse with its voter population and four constituencies matters, political parties leave no stone unturned to focus on the dzongkhag.

According to observers, political parties often concentrate their efforts on larger constituencies because they believe that there are more voters in those areas and therefore a greater chance of winning the election. “Additionally, winning a larger constituency can also bring more electoral influence and power to the party, as well as more resources and funding,” one said.

Former journalist Rabi Dahal said that it is difficult to predict what influence Samtse or any other region would have on the outcome of future elections in Bhutan. “Political and social dynamics can change rapidly, and factors such as the popularity of specific political parties, the appeal of individual candidates, and voter turnout can all impact the election results,” he said. “While Samtse has been known to have a significant influence on elections in the past, there is no guarantee that it will continue to do so in future elections.”

Others feel that voters in the southern dzongkhags are more matured and smart as they border India and are exposed to Indian elections and politics. “Generally, they wait till the end and look where the overall support is because it is not only about voting but also their survival,” another observer from Samtse said.

A teacher from Thimphu who visited his hometown in Samtse recently said that he could see people there paying attention to parties and candidates coming on familiarization tours. “It is too early to say anything. A few days can change the people’s decision,” he said.

Some are also of the view that strong party workers matter as most illiterate voters can be easily influenced by party workers. The ultimate factor, they said, is how they can convince voters of plans they have for the people. “People would have assessed what difference political parties they elected brought to the dzongkhag in the last 15 years. They will vote wisely.”


Further south in Australia 

Meanwhile, another discussion among political parties is the voters in Australia. Dubbed the 21st dzongkhag with a good number of eligible voters, Australia, many say, will play a role in the elections.

“It was the civil servant votes that made a difference in the past,” said one observer.   With around 11,000 Bhutanese in Australia, even half of them participating in the elections will sway elections. “Educated and with good income, they could influence at least their relatives to vote for a certain candidate or party,” he said.

A Bhutanese living abroad said the popularity of political parties and candidates, and the political and economic climate in Bhutan will play a role in determining the outcome of the 2023-2024 elections. “We should ask why people are leaving in droves to Australia or other countries,” he said.

Some political parties are mulling visiting Australia while others are looking for or already have active party workers.


Political party, not the president

Party officials said that not having a president from the south is not an issue. They say political parties keep the interest of the country and the people regardless of who or from where the president is from.

A spokesperson for Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP) said the party believes in inclusive prosperity built on the foundations of highly participatory governance as a means of enhancing the welfare, livelihood, and interests of Bhutanese people, irrespective of their ethnicity.

He said that the party presidents may belong to a certain region or ethnicity but that is not important. “BTP or any other party is dedicated to serving the people of Bhutan, regardless of where the president is from.  “What is more important for the voters to see is which party can deliver and recast the visions of His Majesty The King and fulfill the hopes and aspirations of every Bhutanese citizen,” he said.

Druk Thuendrel Tshogpa’s (DTT) President Kinga Tshering said that their strategy is all laid out for the people to see. “As we have always and persistently conveyed to the people during our familiarisation tours so far, we are going to tune our pledges and plans for the people in keeping with their specific needs, requirements, and aspirations,” he said.

Best epitomised by Thuendrel drama, according to DTT, they will be delivering specific shoe sizes, shoe types, and shoe colours as specified by the people of various communities across different parts of the country. “Gathering from our FAM tour, talking of pledges, one size does not necessarily fit all,” Kinga Tshering said. “Needs of people in different communities of different parts of the country are different.”

PDP’s general secretary, Kuenga Tashi, also said that the party president is the nationwide representative and they never looked at party presidents by region. “Bhutan is going through unprecedented economic and social challenges and people should look for dynamic leadership to rebuild our economy and make Druk Yul better.”

“At this critical juncture, we should see ourselves as Bhutanese and not the time to see party presidents belonging to a dzongkhag or region,” Kuenga Tashi said.  “Resorting to such tactics would not augur well for a united Bhutan.”

Both the spokespersons from DNT and DPT also claimed that it will not make any difference for the parties to which their presidents belong to. “It is all same and we don’t create regionalism,” they said.