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On a mission to redefine politics

Emboldened with the zeal and zest of its ever-energetic president, Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party has embarked on an ambitious mission of redefining politics in the country beginning this election. 

It has endured humiliation on the eve of elections in 2013, after the Election Commission of Bhutan disqualified it for having a candidate short of the required 47. BKP emerged as a new political party in June 2012. It was the first of the new political parties to apply for registration, and had the first woman civil servant to resign and join the party.

BKP remained politically active questioning the distribution of 205 utility vehicles, the Business Opportunity Information Center merger, pay hike of civil servants, but also supported the PDP government’s policy of Rising East. 

Today, BKP has emerged with renewed confidence with a new president, the Dewathang-Gomdar constituency candidate, Neten Zangmo, fondly known as Aum Neten. 

Neten Zangmo has capped numerous hats professionally: Anti-Corruption Commission chairperson, Cabinet secretary, foreign secretary, and a farmer after her retirement.  

Neten Zangmo had never thought of joining politics in her life. While working with the farmers post retirement from public service, she realised that if one wants to make a difference, one has to be somewhere.

And that process to make a difference began on May 2017 when she took over the reins of BKP under the tree her father planted in Dewathang, Samdrupjongkhar. 

“But more importantly, the reason why I have joined politics is to change people’s mindset. Right now, politicians are looked as thugs, as somebody who cannot be trusted,” she had said on the day she joined BKP. “ I think that has to change.”

More importantly, BKP’s values and principles matched those that she held and refused to compromise her entire life. 

Thus, the party’s three main views are: to remain incorruptible, inclusive, and independent. 

The word going round is that the party refused to accept a large donation from a well-known millionaire, sticking to the election rules. 

The party maintains that if one is indebted to the rich and influential, it might have to repay the favour in terms of favourable policies and other ways, which might not be legal or a healthy trend.  

The first thing the party will do as a government is to build trust among the people on politicians so that there is space for them to voice their feelings without fear.

However, she insists that BKP is not Neten Zangmo alone. The party has equally competent candidates in its vice-president Sonam Tobgay, former finance secretary Lam Dorji, deputy-governor Pushpa Lal Chhetri, two-time former NC member Jigme Rinzin, and Dr Dechen Zangmo, among others. The party also has a promising young lot and a decent number of female candidates, with six, ensuring proper succession in the party. 

BKP had 218 members in 2013 from all the dzongkhags except Zhemgang. Of that, 59 had deregistered in the past five years as of July 2018 during which the membership has jumped five times. 

Should it win the primary elections, some established culture of politics will be questioned – primarily the need of money.  The party had various difficulties in even getting candidates because of the money factor, its supporters said.

The party does not have a large following of party members, as it does not believe in building party membership. It (membership) indicates nothing. Neten Zangmo feels that parties going a strong membership drive is unhealthy. “This only leads to splitting communities on party lines which is not healthy,” she said. 

The president has only two companions, her driver and her nephew, on the campaign trail. She skips meals sometimes running on a modest budget – the lowest among the four parties. 

More than 2,500 participants at the party convention in Thimphu were served meals cooked behind the meeting hall and catered by candidates and their relatives. Candidates also helped volunteers serve refreshments, carrying trays of juice and bottled-water.

Neten Zangmo uses most of her entire presidential meetings with voters advocating free and fair elections. She does not ask people to vote for her party and encourages people to raise questions. “BKP is shaking the people up and asking them to be responsible,” she says at her meetings. The emphasis is on creating awareness on the collective responsibility of people in nation building.

The party had suffered a set back mainly because of their command over Dzongkha. Some of the candidates could not perform as expected at the televised common forums. The presidents also left the supporters seeking for more from the forums. 

However, the party leaders sent out an important message to the voters, loud and clear, that it doesn’t matter if BKP’s ballot box remains empty on poll day. But the voters must make a conscious choice and ensure that the coffers of the country don’t run dry. 

Nonetheless, party supporters say that its pledges focussing on not leaving anyone behind make up for more than that. 

BKP maintains that its pledges are affordable. Most of them are philosophical. The party has a 200-page detailed document on how its pledges would be implemented.  The pledges are not only about corruption but the vision is a self-reliant Bhutan. 

It promises to implement the 12th Plan, reform education, ensure 100 percent irrigation and drinking water, pothole free roads, affordable home for all, develop private sector, skill the youths for better employment chances, and invest in improving health care services. 

For the civil servants, it pledges to rid the system of nepotism and corruption in selection for trainings and promotions besides the pay raise. 

Five-coloured circles in the party’s logo represent the five-element plan that makes up a political platform. The plan, signified by the five circles, is their manifesto in essence. 

The Yellow circle stands for the rich and unique culture that values allegiance to the Constitution. The Green circle stands for sustainable management and use of natural resources for green economic development, the Brown circle for efforts to sustain broad-based and regionally balanced economic development and growth, reinforcing social development through equal opportunities, and the Red circle stands for the party’s conviction towards equitable social development, its responsibility for reducing inequalities, pursuit of people empowerment, rule of law, provision of safety nets, and participation in a democratic and pluralistic system respectful of all human rights and individual respect.

The Blue circle in the centre of the Khorlo represents good governance that will be critical for the health of the socio-economy, the environment and our unique culture. The white background stands for purity of heart and mind in the service of Tsawa-Sum.

All five circles are interdependent in nature and interact in coordinated spheres as represented by the outer five rings with the center circle maintaining close harmony in the overall pursuit of Gross National Happiness.

The nyamchung party effect

Druk Phuensum Tshogpa was branded the nyamchung party in the first parliamentary elections in 2008 and then it shifted to the People’s Democratic Party in 2013. Both won.BKP is referred to as the nyamchung party this election –literally without even a media office or support staff.

Voters who have not aligned to any parties say that they would vote for BKP to keep the party alive if it fails to get through the primaries. “If my party doesn’t come through the primaries, then I’ll vote for BKP,” is what most of other party supporters say. Neutral voters believe in the president’s passion and straightforward personality.

The party has been successful in creating an image as a corruption free party and one that will combat corruption during elections and governance. 

Will its anti-corruption champion and the straightforward president become the first woman prime minister of Bhutan? Only time will tell.

Tshering Palden

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