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A contest between change and continuity 

When Bhutan went to the polls the third time, it proved the political pundits wrong again.

The year of the male earth dog, which ushered in the third round of parliamentary elections, revved the country to witness one of the dramatic spectacles of the nation, the elections. A contest between change and continuity, the Bhutanese chose both. It changed the government and continued with the same opposition, the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT).

The incumbent party, People’s Democratic Party (PDP), was voted out in the primary round and a new party, Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), voted in to form the government.

In transitioning, the elections touched on everything that matter to the Bhutanese.  It tested friendship and loyalty – traits associated with the man’s best friend and challenged the limits of expression. Some argue that the elections are that one time in the country when Bhutanese express the most.

The surprises it occasionally threw up were (mis) understood and the results touted to have divided the country into east and the west. The narrative of regionalism however, depends on the party and the region. It continues to do so.

It lured the apolitical, the local government, the religious and the rest as political parties and candidates fanned across the country to woo voters. As party presidents and party workers worked overtime, voter fatigue began to set in and many wished it were over. But elections being elections what with the mud and muck slinging, managed to keep the Bhutanese entertained. Voter turn out was impressive and the election commission’s initiative to set up facilitation booths across the country encouraged voters to come out in droves to exercise their rights.

The national council election, contested by 127 candidates including six women, saw a voter turn out of 54.3 percent, a nine percent increase from the last round and a record for the house. In the words of the chief election commissioner, the council election was not only successful but also exemplary. But more than the high voter turn out facilitated by the postal ballot facilitation booths, and the high number of contestants, the council election results indicated the call for change that was to sweep the country in the following months.

Of the 12 who re-contested from office, five incumbents were re-elected. The dog year saw the election of two female candidates, an improvement from 2013’s all male elects. Incumbency, experience of law making and gender did not matter to the electorate in choosing their representatives to the parliament.

However, what matters to the voters in choosing their representatives remains an enigma. And while political pundits and analysts continue to cite several factors for the wins and losses, the elections showed that many had underestimated the wisdom of the Bhutanese electorate. Their power to change has empowered the people of their rights and responsibilities and every election cycle, this aspect of democracy gets tested.

The primary round, which saw a voter turn out of 66.36 percent, saw another change. It ousted the ruling party, the PDP and Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP), an old party led by a new president. The former won the least number of postal votes, a facility extended to the civil and public servants. Anti-incumbency and anti-campaigning for other parties by others reportedly backfired and led to its loss. There was no fire in the latter and BKP did not scrape even 10 percent of the votes to be eligible for state funding in the next election. While BKP president took the responsibility for the party’s loss, the PDP president’s visit to places to thank the voters was cut short on ECB’s instruction.

The people fielded DNT and DPT to contest the general round, which saw a whooping voter turn out of 71.46 percent. As the election commission started declaring the results of the fiercely contested round on national television, BBSC, network clogged and television screens across the country froze after both the parties won 20 seats each. Around the same time, ECB officials at the democracy house were frantic when a technical glitch got their website to take the number of constituencies to 60 from 47. Even here the country saw change and continuity. The commission replaced its EVMs with 1,000 new machines and continued with its existing website, with or without problems.

When the declaration of results resumed, DNT was leading and went on to win 30 seats. DPT won 17 seats, two more from the last election.

But the technical glitch unleashed the wrath of disappointed party supporters and observers on social media platforms and the win, as much as it made headlines, was not the talk of the town on poll day.

With emotions and hopes high, Bhutan saw as much politicking on social media as it did in the field. Social media users were unforgiving. Malicious and vindictive, it spared none. Anonymous Facebook users went berserk and kept the election commission, the moustachioed and non-at the democracy house late into the night and everyone on their toes and phones.  Of the 21 complaints the commission received during the general election period, 14 were related to social media.

On November 5, a day before the 10-day petition period ended, the ECB issued an explanation on how the poll day results are displayed and invited members of the public to examine the hard copies of the result sheets.

By then, the country had moved on. Giving a day to the people to examine the results left no room for anything else except to complete a formality.

The government elect and the opposition elect accepted the people’s mandate.

It was time for change. It was time for continuity. It was time for the country to come together.

Sonam Pelden

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