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“A Speaker has to know the law”

Kuensel’s Chief Reporter Tshering Palden caught up with the Speaker Jigme Zangpo for a conversation on his term in the Parliament and hereafter.

Looking back over your five years in the Parliament, what were some of the accomplishments?

Although this is the second parliament after introduction of parliamentary democracy, the second parliament had been very successful and satisfying because we were able to hand over this peaceful transition to the third parliament in tact. This is the biggest achievement.

We were united, the atmosphere harmonious and we were able to make decisions in a conscious atmosphere. The debate was intense and resolutions or adoptions were consensual.

We had three main functions: Law-making, oversight, and representative functions. We enacted 23 acts, ratified 11 conventions and agreements. On the representative function, not just my constituency, but as a Speaker, I visited almost all 20 districts and met over 60,000 teachers and students and almost all members of the local government.

Even abroad, we have been playing an active role is SAARC speakers’ summits, Asian Parliament which has about 41 countries, and held a successful Asian cultural Summit in Thimphu. This is one such Parliamentary diplomacy that National Assembly has done. I as the Speaker, was able to join as a member in the International Parliament Union, and represented the country and the people to take part on the adoption on SDG in New York in 2015. We also became member of Asian Forum for Population and Development.

On the oversight function, NA is to mainly scrutinise budget and hold the government accountable. We have revised the National Assembly Act, rules and regulations and dozens of manuals, guidelines in making the government accountable in their executive functions. They have to report to the NA on the works they have done and this has been effective.

We were able to resolve all backlog audit cases and Anti-Corruption Commission reports and this has now been streamlined. We also worked closely with all constitutional bodies and mostly with the ACC and Royal Audit Authority. On this front, about 483 questions were asked as part of oversight function including debate on 183 petitions from dzongkhags. Of that some were sent to ministries for action. All these were possible because of the full support from the MPs, committees, the secretariat and the NA staff.

 

How helpful was your experience as a judge in carrying out the role of the Speaker? What was the most challenging issue that you had to moderate?

Coming from the judiciary I knew the principles of law. A Speaker has to know the law or else he can misfire. If there were no rules of procedure, it would not work systematically. So I had to start from scratch because the functioning of first parliament was absolute majority with 47 MPs and now you have 13 or 15 who had the experience and dynamism in the Parliament, with very strong opposition. That is why we have to put in place a proper system.

The former speaker had the luxury but for me I felt that this measures were required and because of that training, guidelines, and manual were made. In democracy, check and balance is required. It cannot be one majority making decisions. So how do we make decision? It is through voting. That is why I said the magic number is voting. All critical issues were debated and decided through voting, 154 different kind of voting were done.

Budget was always a challenging session. Then there was the debate on fiscal incentives, MPs entitlements, and thromdes.

 

What are some of the challenges of the Parliament?

Research capacity has to be further strengthened in the secretariat, and parliamentarians. We had MPs who had no experience in research and were speaking on the reactionary note in the hall and putting up these findings to the NA without any research. Sometimes the debates were not conclusive and the speaker had to steer it, not necessarily telling them how to make the decision but trying to give them enough time for debate and at the same time has to be able to pick up the issue and highlight it to them.

Sometimes, the central or the national thinking (interest) is misplaced and if the MPs want to address to the voters, then the Speaker has a problem. What happens is some MPs agree during the internal or on one to one and plenary meetings but during the main session in the hall, they don’t agree, as they have to impress their voters.

 

The NA members had to use a rented building as their office. Some said it was inconvenient. Will this continue or has your office been working on the issue?

Yes, I know. There have been complains and I have written to the government for the need to create space for the MPs at the Parliament building. The National Council is going to build its office in the 12th Plan, let’s hope that this would create some space in the NA building as some of the offices such as IT, radio, television, and communications would be clubbed and moved to the new building. But it is not going to happen any time soon.

 

As the speaker, who needs to be apolitical/ neutral and a member of the ruling party, how did you balance your role? How difficult was it to be the middleman? 

See I wear three hats: Speaker who is apolitical when I am chairing the sessions, then MP of Mongar constituency, and then member of PDP party.

But I have been always conscious of my responsibilities. If you go and count how much of time I gave to the two parties, actually the Opposition would have spoken more because MP Dorji Wangdi at times would go on speaking for 45 minutes at a stretch. I tried giving more time for the younger lot to speak, and encouraged them to do so often. After the young and women MPs have spoken in the hall I congratulated them during the recess and urged them to speak out more.

 

Any regrets la? 

What regret can a primary school teacher who was appointed a dzongdag, then secretary general in the National Assembly, and a justice at the High Court have? My only regret is that my farm is growing into a forest back home. I could not find someone to look after it in the past five years.

 

What next after your retire from here? 

I do only small regular prayers, as I don’t have religion background. Mine is more on social work, working with elderly people. I am already 68. It’s better for me to join the Goensho Tshogpa (senior citizen association). My children want me to be near a hospital. I’ve rented a small apartment that I am shifting to here.

 

As an elder politician or Speaker, what advice do you have for people joining politics or future speakers?

Always bear in mind the vision of our Kings for the country and the people – whether you are in the lawmaking or other sectors, this should be the central thinking. Our development goal is Gross National Happiness, serve the King and the people. As His Majesty had said keeping the peace, unity and harmony means avoiding division. Of course political parties have different ideologies but having said that our central thinking should not deviate from security and sovereignty, which is symbolised in His Majesty The King.

To the future Speakers, the person has to work on making the system dynamic and evolutionary. Strategy development is done and budget for training secured. Legal section is weak and we need to strengthen it.  We have to put in checks and balances for transparency and accountability.

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