In about a quarter of a year from now, our national landscape will be lined with political motif as politicians of all colours begin stirring a political ruckus canvassing for votes.
The heavy wheel of democracy will be turned once again in our tiny nation, for the third time, as a majority of us come out to choose leaders who will steer the future course of our nation.
We will see politicians knocking at our doors full of promises or flooding our social media news feeds with campaigns meant to sway our votes. At times it will be their antics that will be on full display. And do not be surprised if a politician who has not noticed us in the last five years suddenly throws a broad smile at us, or pops up at our community gatherings with generous offerings.
We could easily get muddled up and caught up in this political hullabaloo, especially when what we are subjected to is a confusing mix low on facts and high on political propaganda. But try not to get consumed by this political frenzy because a lot is at stake every election season.
Taking our elections seriously
For our democracy to work and deliver, we will need to take our elections seriously. And it starts with us and our precious vote.
All things that we desire and rant about — rule of law, good governance, equality and justice — that lead to a fair society that ensures opportunity and prosperity for everyone are all in that one vote of ours. It carries the promise of better schools for our children, better jobs for our youth, better care for the sick and elderly and a stronger future for our nation. So, our votes and how we consciously and carefully use them matter.
But bear in mind that political candidates will do whatever it takes to pry the votes out of us. And their party stalwarts will try every trick in the book to influence our decision. We have to make sure that we do not succumb to such pressure or get sucked in by the allure of temptation. We must strive to keep sticking to our moral base and what is good for our nation.
Taking the elections seriously is knowing our political candidates well.
We need to get up close and personal with the candidates. We need to ask the right questions without mincing words and be able to filter out the rhetoric and focus on the substance. We should not allow their promises to sway our votes. They will need to be asked how they will achieve what they promise. We have to be wary of those who campaign in poetry but will govern us in prose. Politics is often full of sprinters. We need to look for talented, long distance runners.
But talent alone is not enough in a political hopeful. There are things that matter at fundamental, visceral levels for them to even qualify for our votes. They will have to be measured based on the kind of values that they hold and live by. Academic achievements and public service experiences are one thing; leading a nation is quite another. The last person we want as our leader is a horrible person who has 40 years of public service experience, or an incorrigible character who topped exams.
A fine balance of emotional and intelligent quotient is the sweet spot to look for. We need to go beyond what they give us to see and what they tell us to hear. We need to go beyond what they post on social media or their party websites. We have to be extremely careful in this age of social media gossip and speculation. What we see and read online and the reality can be two poles apart.
Taking the election season seriously is basing our political affiliation on our moral compass and what matters to our collective future. Our political affiliation and how we vote should not be defined by the people we know or by the people we are related to. Nor should it be driven by a party’s name, the look of their logo, the personality of their leader, or their popularity on social media. But if we still do, then we are not voting for democracy; we are voting for tyranny, and worse still idiocy.
Addressing electoral apathy and electoral inequity
Election Commission of Bhutan’s (ECB) online statistics show that the voter turnout in 2008 was a low 53.05% for NC but a heartening 79.38% for NA elections. However, 2013 saw the voter turnout taking a turn for a downslide to a low of 45.15% for NC and a worrying 55.27% for NA primary and 66.13% for NA general.
The slump in the turnout of about 15-17% between 2008 and 2013 occurred despite a 21% increase in registered voters in 2013 from 2008. In other words, although there were more registered voters in 2013 than 2008, the number of people who came out to vote was less than 2008. We need to address this electoral apathy.
There are also concerns on the postal vote front. Compared to 2008, postal ballot applications shot up by about 87-94% in 2013 for both NC and NA. However, 2013 also recorded high rejection rates between 34-58% compared to 15-23% in 2008. This is a cause for serious concern as only about 42-66% of the applications had ballots issued against them. Further, against the ballots issued, invalid ballot rates of 5-27% for the entire 2008 and 2013 elections are a concern, as every ballot issued did not get converted into a legitimate vote. The fact that nearly 18% of voting in the last two elections happened through postal ballots — with a potential for this figure to rise further in 2018 — makes for a strong case for scrutiny and electoral research.
Our National Parliamentary Elections cost our national exchequer Nu 213.61 million and Nu 286.4 million in 2008 and 2013, respectively. However, despite the fact that NA had twice more elected members than NC with two elections as against NC’s one, the fund spent on NA elections in 2008 was only 14.7% more than NC election and 7.13% lower than NC election in 2013. Also, it is interesting to note that while the NC elections saw an almost 50% spending increase from 2008 to 2013, the NA elections spending increased only by about 20%. This electoral inequity needs to be looked at as it could potentially impact election outcomes.
But voters doing their part are only a part of the equation for our democracy to succeed. Our voting will have to be made as simple and convenient as possible so that a greater number of voters are attracted to come out and vote.
Our progress into the future and our collective prosperity will depend to a great extent on the choices we make every election. If we take every election seriously by coming out to vote, we might start seeing politics deliver more good than what we are given to believe. If we take every election seriously, we might be able to diminish the sour sentiments that currently surround politics. If we take our election seriously, we might not be able to sieve out every corrupt soul, but we would have surely contributed significantly towards making our democracy work better for us. The quality of our democracy will depend on the quality of politicians we elect. We cannot afford to scupper this important deal.
We matter. Our votes matter.
Contributed by Dorji Tshering
He currently lives and works in Australia