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#4060, 30 July 2013

IPCS Discussion

Bhutan Elections 2013
Roomana Hukil
Research Officer, iRes, IPCS
Email: roomana@ipcs.org

Ms. Medha Bisht
Bhutan Elections have been interesting, controversial and conflicting to a certain degree. The wild card that triggered responses in the media was due to an announcement by the ministry of external affairs on the withdrawal of subsidies from kerosene oil, LPG, excise duty refund. The subsidy will be reinstated and some solution seems to be in the offing but nevertheless this whole issue did create political ripples in the landscape of Bhutan. Some critiques have termed this withdrawal as ill-timed considering it to be a policy lapse by the Indian government whilst many pointed out that these are the first cracks in India-Bhutan relations. They interpreted this move as a reactionary and consider it as a response of Former Prime Minister, Jigme Thinley’s cosiness to China.

This year, the Bhutanese National Assembly elections had four major political parties that contested the elections, i.e. People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (BPP), Druk Nymrub Tshogpa (DNT) and Druck Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT). Of these four, the BPP has been the major opposition party since five years now and they have been popular for upholding lands for the past 20 – 25 years. Therefore, this time around, the victory of the PDP is, indeed, a watershed moment in Bhutan in certain ways. 

Bhutan has two rounds of elections, the first round that is known as the primary round. All the parties that have got clearance from the Election Commission can contest elections. This is the elimination or qualifying round before the final round - where only two parties with the maximum number of votes can contest elections. The PDP secured a total of 93,800; BPP got 68,550 votes; DNT got 36,000 and DCT got 12,500 votes. In terms of percentage, PDP bagged 44%, BPP - 32.5%, DNT - 17% and DCT - 5.9%. The total voter turnout in Bhutan, despite rains and heavy storms, was 55% which is 10% more than the National Council Elections held in April. 

The PDP got a clear win in the primary round against the BPP by bagging votes in 12 constituencies. This is ironical when compared to the first parliamentary elections that were held in Bhutan in 2008. The PDP only secured two seats of the total 47 seats. When the DPT lost to PDP in Bhutan – respondents stated that they want a party that can provide development a new shape. Therefore, clearly, the people of Bhutan now want some kind of path breaking change within the country.

The second point that needs to be highlighted is the fact that the swing votes of the DNT in the second round eventually went to the PDP. This is an important factor because after the primary round, around 8 DNT members along with its vice president and president marched into the PDP. This gave a clear edge to the PDP in East Bhutan thence created a divide between DPT and PDP. As a result, the PDP won!

Now, why does East Bhutan play a vital role? This is, primarily, because the whole controversy that generated around India i.e. it has been, directly, responsible for PDP’s victory is not merely true. As PDP’s victory can be attributed to domestic politics. Talking about the domestic politics of Bhutan is irrelevant without drawing neat correlations between the PDP’s victory and India as a factor. 

Five factors were highlighted as to why DPT lost to PDP:

First, the anti-incumbency factor. Anti-incumbency did play an important role in the 2013 elections. The DPT’s political record in the past five years has been witnessed by favouritism. Thus, being the most famous catchword associated with the DPT. There have been reports in the media of Thinley’s and other DPT politicians being roped up in corruption activities, land scam cases, lottery case, favouring communal ties, policy issues, etc and some of these cases are an important case in point here. 

Second, a special concern is the land bill. The land bill is important because it was initiated by the DPT.  There was a preposition that gifting land was a special privilege that could be done by the elected men to the mascots or the King. However, this was seen by some quarters as unfavourable. There was a slight mount of friction that emerged between the monarchy and the DPT members regarding this tradition. Therefore, the land bill created a heavy impact amongst the people at large. 

The third factor is the rupee crunch. The rupee crunch was another factor for the DPT losing the elections this year. This was because many of its policies were being faulted by laying too much focus on imports, capital expenditure leading to money out loads, outsourcing of projects, etc were such factors that deemed controversial in Bhutan’s domestic politics. 

Another factor that led to PDP’s victory is that of the leadership provided by the opposition leader - Tshering Tobgay. In 2008, the National Assembly debates, despite, a very weak opposition i.e. with two members was quite unlikely to sustain. This was due to the tenacity of one man. Tshering Tobgay is a popular figure on the social media platforms. If one tries to analyse his role in the victory of PDP’S career, one sees that he came out clearly against DPT’S policies in the public domain on social and economic issues. These debates informed the public that something was going wrong with the DPT whilst Tobgay continued to voice the concerns of the people.

The last factor is that of the demographic benefit that favoured the PDP. A maximum number of voter’s reside in the South; given its habitable conditions. From the onset, Topgay continued to voice the concerns of the South. The PDP thence garnered votes from the South as people wanted change in DPT’s policies. This leads to the conclusion that not many people are happy with the developmental path of Bhutan - that has been evolving for the past five years. 

Given that the industrial wealth of Bhutan lies predominantly in the South. The South does carry some political and economic weight. And India’s role will be loomed in every now and then, considering that it is one of the largest developmental partners of Bhutan. The role of the people from the southern region will also play a vital role in India - Bhutan relations in the longer run. 

Thus, PDP won due to the aforementioned social, political factors – which had been, vehemently, raised in the past 5 years. 

With regard to India’s role in PDP’s victory and DPT’s defeat, many analysts have identified a positive relationship between the two. Two explanations that is proximate to India’s policy behaviour. First and foremost is the role of the King. Is the King just a symbolic, detached player in the political affairs of Bhutan? No. Bhutan is the top most priority for India which is overlooked by the foreign secretary of India himself. Given the timing of the decision was crucial, the time was also very sensitive as elections were about to take place. New Delhi is not entirely to blame as the decision must have had the approval of the King or, perhaps, the King was consulted before coming out on New Delhi to withdrawing the subsidies. So, instead of arguing that the decision was ill – timed, one could say that the decision was very well timed. 

There was some friction between the monarchy and the DPT. The convention that took place highlighted a few critical factors i.e. some allegations were held against the Palace Secretariat and the Army to be playing a non-ethical role in Bhutan’s politics. Since, the army is headed by the King himself. So, these issues need to be kept in mind before laying emphasis on external factors and blaming India to play a spoiler’s role for the DPT. 

Second, China – if the whole issue of subsidy withdrawal whilst considering the China factor was to be true then we are being pointed to something serious. The latest policy initiative towards Bhutan leads us to believe that the negotiations on the disputed border area are almost settled. In simpler terms, Bhutan-China border relations are settled for good and Bhutan has decided to surrender the patches of its disputed land area in the north-western frontier to China. If New Delhi, has intentionally withdrawn subsidy from Bhutan, in order, to express its economic plight because of the China factor, then there are serious undercurrents between Bhutan-China border relations. 

Thus, two important questions that result from this are – have Bhutan – China border negotiations undergone any political compromise or is Bhutan surrendering slowly to China’s claiming tactics on its North-West frontier? However, China is an important pointer in the India- Bhutan relations and things are settling on the subsidy front.

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