Kuensel’s reporter Tshering Dorji catches up with opposition leader Pema Gyamtsho (PhD) to take stock of the opposition’s performance in the last five years. Excerpts
What was the greatest achievement of the Opposition in the last five years?
We are grateful to the people for giving us the mandate to serve the Tsawa-Sum as the Opposition Party in the Second Parliament. Our greatest achievement has been our ability to conduct ourselves as an effective and dignified Opposition and contributing our best to promote peace, harmony and unity in keeping with the vision of His Majesty The King and the aspirations of the people.
How would you rate the performance of the Opposition?
I would say the Opposition did extremely well and provided effective check and balance to the government. Our objective was to set an example for future opposition parties on how to play a constructive role and avoid setting negative precedence that could be used to disrupt the functioning of governments. We were extremely honored when His Majesty The King graciously commended us for being a very balanced and mature opposition at the closing ceremony of the 10thSession of the Second Parliament.
What were the challenges the Opposition faced in accomplishing its mandate?
One of the greatest challenges we faced was the repeated attempt by certain quarters to depict a negative image of our party and demoralising our supporters as well as instilling fear and suspicion among the people. This factor, coupled with lack of financial resources, was a huge challenge for us to sustain the party. Of course, there were other obvious challenges like the lack of numbers to effectively block the government’s decision on many occasions. However, we did not let these challenges distract us from playing our role as an opposition.
The government has blamed its predecessor for an all time low economic growth in 2013 accompanied by rupee shortage. Your views.
Unfortunately this is the only thing that the government seemed to be capable of doing – blaming its failures on the past government. They did so at the start of their tenure and they are doing it now at the end of their tenure. One should remember that 2013 was an unusual year with our term ending in April 2013 and the PDP government taking over by end of July. Therefore, the low GDP growth rate of 2.14% could not be attributed to the former government. Moreover, the rupee shortage was purely due to the overheating of the economy as many mega projects were either under implementation or initiated by the previous government, which required massive quantities of imports from India requiring rupee expenditures.
Contrary to their projected target of achieving more than 10% average GDP growth, the outgoing government has only achieved 6.73% whereas the average annual GDP growth during the tenure of previous government was more than 8%. Moreover, whatever growth they achieved during their tenure could be attributed to revenue generated from investments made by the previous government in building roads, connecting towns and villages with electricity and telecommunications.
While the government is gloating about the improved state of the economy, it is at best superficial and driven by imports, grants and loans rather than real growth in export earnings or internal revenues. Trade deficit has increased to Nu 37 billion from the Nu 20.70 billion in 2013. Their self-acclaimed solution of the rupee shortage problem was not at all true. The control over credit and import restrictions adopted as a remedial measure by the DPT government has corrected the imbalance and not the policies introduced by the PDP government. Most gains in revenue and Rupee inflow and GDP growth were the result of power tariff revision and not through new strategies of PDP. Further, the shortage of Rupee was addressed through the direct exchange of dollars received for externally funded projects for meeting rupee expenditures, which previously used to be deposited into the foreign currency reserve. The dollar reserve as of July 2018 stands at Nu 715M, a decrease by more than 200M from the 2013 reserve of Nu 917M.
How would you rate the government’s performance?
The performance of the government was dismal and highly unsatisfactory. The government’s policies were short – sighted and purely populist in nature. Lack of clear vision for the country’s socio-economic growth, cultural and ecological integrity was clearly evident in the way they derailed the hitherto acclaimed Vision 2020 – A Vision for Peace, Prosperity and Happiness.
To summarise, all they did was to either undo or overturn the previous governments’ sound policies and practices in a bid to gain electoral advantages rather than for the long-term benefit of the nation. Unemployment level has reached an all time high and not a single major industry has been set up. They were not even able to start the mega hydropower projects already in pipeline with GoI support.
Their own final report showed that the overall achievement was only 33% of the 11th FYP targets. Income inequality has increased during their tenure as indicated by the rise in Gini index from 0.36 in 2012 to 0.38 in 2017 (Bhutan Poverty Analysis Report 2017) implying that the gap between rich and poor has widened.
How do you compare today’s Opposition to the Opposition of the past (current ruling party)?
Even as an Opposition Party, we have stuck to our ideology of ‘Equity and Justice’ and our mission of pursuing GNH. Therefore, in our engagements with the government, either in the parliament or outside, we have always analysed the issues through the lens of our ideology and principles and acted accordingly. We supported the government where it deserved support and opposed it when we felt that their actions would be destructive and harmful to our nation and society. We have also ensured that all our interventions were well-researched and well-meant with the purest of motives. Never once, did we engage in negative politics with the intention of disrupting the functioning of the government or hampering its activities. We have also decided right from the start of our tenure that the decision of the Parliament should be respected and honoured and that we will not resort to filing cases in the court regardless of our opinion on the legality of an issue that we disagreed with. We strongly believed that doing so would be tantamount to surrendering the powers of the legislative to the judiciary and that future opposition parties would intentionally use it as a means to destablise the government of the day.
In our days as government, the Opposition used to enjoy complete freedom of interaction with members of the public and civil service. In the present constellation, people are reluctant to come forward to interact with us allegedly due to fear of reprimands from the government. A good yardstick for gauging the difference is also the way mainstream and social media function. Media used to be openly critical of our government and supportive of the Opposition during our tenure while it is no more the case and most critics resort to using anonymous accounts on social media to voice their grievances against the government under the outgoing government.
Does the Opposition feel that the government has involved or consulted the Opposition in key matters, wherever it necessitates by law, or even otherwise?
No. They felt that they did not need to do that and did not reach out to us. However, we will leave that to the public, including the media, to judge.
What is the Opposition’s assessment on the overall performance, achievement and conduct of the second Parliament?
Given that we are still a new democracy and only the second Parliament, I would say that we have done very well. We could enact many laws, debated passionately on many policies and issues, conducted the sessions in a dignified manner, and maintained cordial relations among the members. Having said that, there was a lot to be desired including the way that the proceedings are conducted to improve fairness and efficiency. However, we were fortunate that we always have His Majesty The King to guide us and inspire us to fulfill our respective mandates with dignity and integrity.