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  Asia-Pacific
Shaky Start to Druk Democracy
By Nava Thakuria
Special Correspondent
Tiger's Nest monastary — The Tiger's Nest (Takshang Lhakang) fortresse or monastary near Paro, Bhutan is located at about 3,000 meters above sea level. The ancient Dzongs (fortresses) stand sentinel in calm valleys through which flow serene Himalayan rivers. Nestled between Tibet and India is the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan. Locals call this Druk Yul (Bhutan), the "Land of the Dragon." It is also dubbed as the Kingdom of Himalayan Shangri-La."

The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, also known as Druk Yul and ruled by the Wangchuck dynasty for a century, has turned into a democracy. Enriched with the experience of conducting smoothly the first round of election for its upper house of Parliament in December and January (not speak of two rounds of mock polls last year), the Shangri-la stepped into the final pace for converting an absolute monarchy to multiparty democracy. But it seems to lose democratic status in its highest policy making forum, as the opposition leaders have decided to resign from the National Assembly or the lower house of parliament.

While the international media was pouring news from the newest democracy in the globe, the election commission of Bhutan had received a letter from the opposition party alleging the malpractice in the last general election on March 24. The result of the polls, which was declared next day, showed the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) emerging as an overwhelming winner with 45 seats out of 47 parliamentary constituency. The DPT (meaning Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party) is led by the former Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley, who supposes to take the same responsibility once again in the coming few days. The DPT had a pictorial design of three flying birds (Thrung Thrung Karm) as its poll symbol.

Trouble started when the opposition members made an appeal to the election commission to launch an investigation into National Assembly polls, where they faced a humiliating defeat. The People's Democratic Party (PDP), which accepted a White Horse as its election symbol and led by Sangay Ngedup, argued that the result of the polls was shocking as they enjoyed almost equal response from the voters just before the poll-date. He claimed that their party candidates were received by the rural people with great enthusiasm.

"We believe that there were some malpractices in the campaigning, where DPT candidates might have used money to influence the voters in the last hours," argues a PDP worker, while confirming that two of their elected members have decided to resign from the National Assembly. Speaking to this correspondent from Thimphu, the PDP worker, who wanted anonymity, alleged that the DPT candidates continued their campaign illegally till the evening of April 23 in many districts.

Earlier Tashi Tsering, the PDP spokesman, while talking to media persons in Thimphu, asserted, "We feel that in a number of constituencies the balance may have been tilted due to last-minute campaigning (by the DPT candidates)." He also added, "Two members in opposition bench will hardly form an influential opposition." Tashi Tsering however clarified that the PDP was not demanding for re-election in the country.

Meanwhile, an election official based in the capital revealed that they had received a letter from the PDP leaders. "But we have to do nothing as they have decided to resign from the National Assembly. The decision regarding the acceptance of their resignation will be taken by the speaker only," the officer confirmed. The parliament session of the country is expected to begin next month, where the King would invite the leader of the party with majority elected members to form the government. The government will enjoy a term of five years. Before the government starts functioning, a speaker to the lower house will be elected.

The chief election commissioner of Bhutan, Dasho K. Wangdi, had however claimed that the polls were free and fair, and it was monitored by the media persons and political observers from many foreign countries. Mentionable that, nearly 40 international observers from India, Japan, Canada, Denmark, Australia, Netherlands, the United States, the European Union and the officials of the UNDP (based in Thimphu) with others monitored the Bhutan election and expressed satisfaction on the poll process.

Members of the royal family and clerics directly associated with the religious institutions were not allowed to participate in the voting. The poll date, March 24 was declared as a national holiday with all government and private establishments were closed. The voting started at 8 am (Bhutan is 30 minutes ahead of India) and ends at 5 pm. Like the National Council polls, Electronic Voting Machines (EVM), supported by India, were used in the last polls. The counting began immediately after the voting and the result was telecast and broadcast live through Bhutan Broadcasting Service and Bhutan Radio.

Nearly 80% of the 318,465 registered voters exercised their franchise, quoting the election commission of Bhutan, Kuensel, a government run newspaper reported. The Bhutanese citizens, who are 18 years and above and holding valid citizenship cards were eligible for voting. However the candidates for the polls were compulsorily graduates. Bhutan has, on record, more than 11,000 graduates. Earlier, the election commission disqualified a third party named Bhutan People United Party (BPUP). The BPUP lacks both maturity and the appropriate mix and strength in terms of its membership since more than 80 percent of the members are school dropouts, or have no credible academic qualifications, the commission declared.

The Bhutan Election Commission had already conducted the polls for 25 member upper house of parliament (called National Council), where each Dzongkhags (a district) elected 20 members and five eminent personalities from various fields were nominated by the King. Nearly 50 percent voters turned up for the upper house election.

The isolated Buddhist kingdom, sandwiched between two giant neighbors (India and Tibet/China) is known for its unique standard of community living, where the rulers weigh more on Gross National Happiness (GNH) in spite of internationally recognized Gross National Product index. Smoking is banned throughout the country, where education and health care facilities are provided free for every Bhutanese. An isolated Kingdom had witnessed the entry of Television in 1999 only. Soon the internet facilities followed.

The PDP leader, who was talking to this correspondent from their office in the capital, however admitted that many Bhutanese voters felt that the DPT president, Jigme Y. Thinley was asked by the King himself to form the party. And the party took advantage out of the general feeling. Moreover, Thinley was one of pioneers to propagate the GNH concept in the kingdom.

The DPT election manifesto also tried to exploit the GNH affect. It said, "In pursuit of gross national happiness, growth with equity and justice, we offer our unwavering allegiance to the sacred institution of monarchy, the life-force of our nation and dedicate ourselves to realising the vision of the Fourth Druk Gyalpo (king), His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, for a united, progressive and happy country," adding "We shall be guided by His Majesty the King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, in our pursuit of Gross National Happiness (GNH) through a true and vibrant democracy."

But some of the PDP candidates alleged that the EVMs might had shown wrong (read motivated) result. But his comment was out rightly rejected by an Indian election official. "The largest democracy in the globe (India) has been using the EVMs for many years with perfect result. Moreover, Indian chief election commissioner had categorically declared that EVMs were fool proof," stated the election officer based in Guwahati.

Talking to this correspondent from Thimphu, a journalist cum political commentator argued that the PDP had come out with the allegation because of their thwarting failure in the polls. "I agree there should have been a stronger opposition for a successful democracy in our country. But now we cannot help but accept the verdict of the polls," argued the senior Bhutanese based in Thimphu.

The gentlemen, who too wanted anonymity, also added, "The PDP might have no prior information that they would lose with such a big margin. Out of shock, they now want the election commission to investigate into the 'strange developments' that allegedly took place within the 48 hours before the voting took place. And finally the two elected members of PDP had agreed to obey the diktat of the leadership."

But it will create no crisis in the functioning of the parliament, he claimed and hoped that the DPT would serve the people of Bhutan with full expectation.



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Nava Thakuria, who serves as a special correspondent for The Seoul Times, is based in Guwahati of Northeast India. He also contributes articles for many media outlets based in different parts of the glove, and can be contacted at navathakuria@gmail.com

 

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