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Constitutional framing or a usual bickering?

The recent public exchange of political salvos between the PDP government and Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) has once again brought to attention some caveats in the Constitution, specifically Article 15.

The point of departure here is what the prime minister alluded about the DNT last week – that, despite their absence in Parliament, the party lost no opportunity in issuing press releases to suit its political interest by crying foul at the government’s certain decisions.

In a democratic context, or even otherwise, an institution or an individual or a group, has the right to issue press releases or seek media attention to have its voice heard. Call it presenting alternative facts or alternative views!

But this is not the issue here. For PDPs and DNTs will come and go. The issue is the Constitution itself, because experience is now telling us that our so-called multiparty democracy ends with the primary round. After the primary round, it is strictly a two-party affair.

The drafters of the Constitution believed that multiparty representation would paralyze Parliament. Examples are aplenty in the region. Political coalitions tend to be shaky. The drafters believed that a coalition of parties would not necessarily guarantee a strong and effective government. They agreed on only two parties for the general round, an automatic fix to all potential deadlocks.

The 2008 political scenario didn’t challenge the provisions of Article 15 because a third party failed to materialize. However, the primary round of the second election in 2013 had four parties. The People’s Democratic Party and Druk Phuensum Tshogpa went into the general round, while DNT and Druk Chirwong Tshogpa (DCT) took home about 23% of popular votes.

Consequently, in a turn of complex events leading up to the poll day, PDP won the maximum votes, and formed Bhutan’s second democratically elected government. While DPT made its resentment with the result a much-debated affair, DNT and DCT were off to a long hibernation. They were the failed parties.

Now, come to think about it, what happens to these parties when their supporters are forced to rally around a new party for the general round? Even otherwise, how do the supporters of these ‘failed’ parties make themselves relevant to the polls? The Constitution leaves them with no choice but to engage in horse-trading. They must quickly choose between the two parties and declare allegiance if they are to expect a fair representation in Parliament. And we saw that happen.

Thus, certain clauses of Article 15 curtail pluralism and participation thereby consequently weakening the very foundation for a strong democratic tradition. Add to this other diluters: apolitical National Council, apolitical local government, apolitical civil service, and disfranchised religious domain. The pool of participation only shrinks, especially when one realizes that almost half the population can’t vote because it’s an adult and secular franchise.

Political parties must be formed as long-term public institutions and they should muster credibility through active participation in elections, and sometimes by winning elections. However, given the limitations set by the Constitution, people might be of the perception that political parties are encouraged with the myopic vision of fulfilling the short-term democratic agenda.

Democracy can only be deepened if people actively participate in politics through the parties of their choice that have fair representation in Parliament. The Constitution, again, by declaring the local government apolitical further curtails political participation, and limits people’s engagement in political affairs.

Deepening democracy means creating a vibrant political culture, and this can happen only if we have thriving political parties that create smart politicians who rally around a set of political ideas that set the tone of public policies. Public debates must become livelier and dissent must be tolerated. A major challenge if democracy needs to be deepened will be in building the capacity of parties. Without functional multiple parties that stand on differing ideologies but with common national goals, the danger of democracy remaining within the confines of the polling stations is real.

A politically illiterate electorate might not bother so much for fairness of representation in Parliament so long as their needs and wants are met, but a matured electorate may not participate in the general round where the parties of their choice are not contesting. In other words, this disenchanted electorate might choose to forego an unrepresentative political participation.

Let’s take an example: four parties – A, B, C, and D – are participating in the primary round, and B and D garner most votes, which means they are constitutionally granted legitimacy to contest the general round. However, the fact that they have failed to be among the top two performers in the primary round has rendered A and C irrelevant for the moment. And to add insult to their injuries, their supporters now have no choice but to either abstain from voting in the general round or must quickly defect for either of the two parties contesting the general round.

A couple of disconcerting observations can be made here: first, the voters of Party A and C have lost their political identity either way (whether they abstain or legitimately horse-trade); second, democracy is tacitly encouraging disfranchisement. This certainly will neither help in deepening democracy nor in building a democratic culture.

We have seen that for the parties that don’t go beyond the primary round, the issue is about their very existence. They need funds to maintain the party structure and sustain their presence until the next election. In the meanwhile, they must prove their relevance in the public sphere by negotiating outside-the-Parliament role with the ruling and the opposition parties.

The question is: what possible role could these parties play?

For one, these parties with no formal role in governance should continue to provide platforms for formal political engagement to their supporters. They could help communities remain connected to politics after the polls. To their supporters these parties will represent political inclusion in the wider sense of reaching out to policymakers, and the very existence (even after the primary round defeat) of the party that one supports is itself an incentive to engage in politics.

The third parties can also play a more traditional role of protest vehicle as practiced in the American system. In fact, the importance of third parties becomes pronounced when people believe that the major two parties (the ruling and the opposition) have neglected issues of importance or have become unresponsive to their needs.

Otherwise, in absence of a wider public space for political bargains, voters are bound to rally around the winner simply because one that governs also delivers. And this sadly defeats the vision of a multiparty democracy. Especially if voters offer a sweeping win to one party and leave the other completely weakened and disillusioned. Of course, the other, and perhaps wiser, option is to build institutions that will help build the capacity of political parties – both winners and losers.

 

Contributed by Gopilal Acharya

Gopilal Acharya, an independent consultant and a freelance journalist, often dabbles in alternative policy thoughts. He can be contacted at

 gopibhutanese@gmail.com.  

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