2008 has been a year of tremendous change in the small Kingdom of Bhutan and for its people. There has probably never been a case before, in which such contradictory events took place within a few months, while at the same time surprisingly in perfect line with the path on which Bhutan embarked decades ago. Having been called to the polls to choose their representatives for the National Council (Gyelyong Tshogde), the upper chamber of parliament, on a non-partisan basis, the first multiparty elections for the National Assembly (Tshogdu) took place on 24 March 2008. By achieving a turnout of almost 80 per cent, participation was extraordinary high, even for a founding election. Three months later the newly convened parliament in a joint sitting passed the country’s first ever written constitution, thus formally transforming the century old kingdom into a constitutional monarchy. Finally, on 6 November 2008 the fifth Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, was enthroned and received the Raven Crown from the hands of his father, who abdicated in 2006. Bhutan had changed its face and at the same time once again found the middle path between progressive development and traditional preservation on which the fourth king guided his country without hesitation in recent decades.
The 35 articles of the constitution grant all major classical rights and liberties to the people and provide for a democratic form of government, though the structure of the new system is quite unique in its shape and configuration. Taking into consideration the people’s attitudes towards politics and the country’s unique culture and tradition, the result is an interesting combination of consensual and majoritarian elements of democracy, topped by the unique role of the monarch within the polity, which rather resembles the role of a president in presidential or semi-presidential system, instead that of a constitutional monarch in Western constitutional democracies. The coming years will have to show whether the system will work properly, or if further adjustments will need to be made.
One year after the elections, Bhutan still has to finalize the institutionalization and consolidation of its democracy. For example . the Supreme Court is yet to be set up. . The government and the parliament in general are working slowly but surely towards passing sufficient legislation for institutions and procedures as envisaged by the constitution, while at the same time dealing with the day-to-day business of the chambers and addressing the problems and challenges of the nation. The tasks ahead are great and expectations are high, but in recent times it has become obvious, that the promises given before the elections will take longer to be fulfilled than originally planned.
The process of development and progress cannot be considered in the time frame of one year. It has to be looked at within the context of progress in the preceding years. If done so one recognizes easily that the achievements are substantial, although democracy seems to be struggling for the last month. The newly-elected representatives are trying to fit themselves into their new role and they are learning how to perform their job and how to, for example, deal with the media and the press. After the 2006 Bhutan Information Communication and Media Act, two new broadcasting stations and newspapers emerged, complementing the state-run media, by independent sources of information. However, public officials as well as journalists, still have some problems in their relationship to each other regarding the balance between sufficient freedom of the press and objective and professional news coverage.
Despite criticism, justified or otherwise, and some teething troubles in the world’s youngest democracy, one should not be ignoring the profound achievements so far. Besides three events of a historical dimension that shook the country in 2008, the ratings of freedomhouse.org for Bhutan improved considerably for the first time, and the country is now ranked as ‘partly free’ (one should keep in mind, that it is not democracy itself, which is measured by this rather crude index, composed of qualitative, personal judgments). Regarding transparent governance and the fight against corruption, the measures introduced by the former king (namely the Anti-Corruption Commission, which now is granted constitutional status), seem to be taking effect. Transparency International rates Bhutan 45th in its 2008 Corruption Perception Index with a score of 5.2 (compared to 5.0 in 2007), and while there is obviously much to be done, Bhutan ranks best among all South Asian states. Recent allegations and investigations of public officials accused of corruption show that the government is committed to continuing the fight against corruption. Regarding human rights the performance of the government has again improved. There remain certain problems, but as the US Department of State concludes in its 2008 human rights report, the “transition to a parliamentary democracy helped the human rights situation to improve considerably.“
It is clear that there are still challenges ahead and that there are still some insufficiencies with regard to modern democratic standards. Both the politicians and the people are however, working towards improving the situation, and as long as the new king remains committed to development and the well-being of his country as the fourth king had been, there are good chances that Bhutan will further strengthen its young democracy. One should not forget, that it was not the people who called for political reforms, they rather begged their king to stay in power when he announced his abdication. In the last year everyone has had to grow accustomed to the very meaning of a democratic government.
Finally, evaluating the state of democracy in Bhutan requires thinking about one’s own concept of democracy. What standards are to be applied and which of them make sense? Bhutan is a unique case that accounts for its history, for its tradition and culture, for its transition, and for its current polity. Therefore, the current political system has to be viewed within the context of the society for which it was designed. Bhutan is more than just an electoral democracy and yet does not really fit well into the Western concept of modern democracy. However, this should not be seen as a weakness, rather as a good example of what can be achieved, if leaders have a vision for their people and their country and are truly committed to bringing about meaningful change. How often, after all, does one hear of an absolute monarch who voluntarily gives up his powers, introduces democracy, and abdicates the throne in order to pave the way for a new and younger generation?