It was a mix feeling of hesitance and excitement when the people of Bhutan went to the polls for the first time in 2008. A lot has been said about this globally unprecedented privilege (with responsibility) bestowed upon its people from no other than their throne in the Kingdom of Bhutan.
The second round of elections in 2013 did not require any of those organised mock sessions that were in abundance in the first round as most people were already seen conversant with the process. Of course, both these elections gave people somewhat unexpected and surprising outcomes. Some of the lessons learnt were that the politics is difficult to phantom and the democracy seems to be a necessary evil today with the party politics being as notoriously complicated as exciting and thrilling that it may be.
This month is the time for the National Council (NC) elections in Bhutan.
The Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan is unique in many ways. In most democracies the Parliaments have upper and lower houses and the representations in the upper house is mostly reflection of the lower one. But the far-sighted creators of our Tsathrim Chenmo, the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, did not feel that it had to be that way in Bhutan. We have independent elections by the people for the National Council, which may be equivalent to the Upper House in other democracies, but the NC is not even termed as the Upper House. This non-political and non-partisan House, according to the Section 2 of the Article 11 of the Constitution of Bhutan, is designated as “House of review on matters affecting the security and sovereignty and the interest of the country”. The ‘interest of the country’ with no clear limitations makes its role often as powerful as the National Assembly. This was made evident in some occasions during a few of the past Parliamentary deliberations. The NC had raised objections against the actions of the government and even revoked some of the decisions, reminding the politicians about the gravity of the ‘national interest’ which has to be above the personal and party selfishness.
With such important role in the country’s governance system and in the making of the laws and the policies, it is expected that we have credible and knowledgeable members in the Parliament. In this round of elections, there were as many as 182 aspiring candidates in the fray, the highest so far. And with as many as 22 candidates debating in a small dzongkhag like Dagana, this in itself is a record. Similarly, there is a good mix of young and inexperienced to elderly and veteran candidates in almost every dzongkhag. It is up to the voters to choose the best.
Against this backdrop, what is uncertain is whether the voters are excited and sufficiently aware about their candidates. More importantly, how well informed is their decision going to be? Of course, there is obviously excitement in participation by these many aspirant candidates, but some of them unfortunately do not seem to even have a good idea why they are there and what it means to be a parliamentarian. In fact, someone has lightheartedly remarked that election is becoming like a vacancy announcement of an agency where there is a rush of unemployed graduates vying for limited positions. While we also come across many eligible voters not serious about casting their votes, many people who are voting are looking for friends and known figures rather than candidates with required experiences and potential competencies.
And we have heard the debates. While the changed format of debate itself is debatable, the quality of the questions posed was varied, not all questions asked were relevant. Often the questions lacked an expected standard. Watching these debates on the national television, one was sometimes reminded of the extempore speech competitions in the schools. Proficiency in the debating language could be a challenge for some, but many were seen repeating the same idea in different words.
Having said that, we also have seen some promising figures in the field who would be able to deliver and uphold the stature and the role of the position of a member of National Council and if they are also recognised by their voters, we will have something to look forward to in this first big round of election of the year on April 20.
Let the best of the best win!
Contributed by Shiva Raj Bhattarai
Dean, Royal Thimphu College
Views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not in any way represent that of any organisation