A mid the flurry of election activities the country is witnessing, several reports on the common forums have surfaced.
Some dzongkhags reported low attendance while others raised concerns on the language. For some, the talk time provided to the candidates was limited. Issues were raised on why question and answer sessions were disallowed at the end of the forum.
These are valid concerns from the people and the candidates. It shows that our electoral rules are hindering political discourse, an essence of democracy. With voters ill informed about the parties, discourse on politics remains superficial and politics, personal. The virtual world that our literate population hounds is rife with slander and fake news. At a time when the whole country is digitally connected, there is misinformation online. There is lack of information off line.
In such a situation, common forums become the most effective campaign platforms. It provides political parties and candidates an equal opportunity to address the electorate. It reduces the necessity to call for separate public meetings. It is convenient to the people and the candidates and diminishes the chances of soliciting votes through corrupt means. The common forums are a relief to new parties and candidates who struggle to mobilise crowd and arrange meeting venues in the dzongkhags.
For the primary elections, the election commission has scheduled 393 common forum sessions across the country. Since it began on August 27, all sessions have to be completed by September 12, within 17 days. This means the commission on an average organises 23 common forum sessions a day, almost one every hour.
The task of holding common forums is not easy. The difficult terrain and bad roads often make it challenging for the election officials and candidates to organise the sessions. The commission has considered the convenience of the people in giving the candidates 10 minutes to speak at the forums. Unlike dzongkhags with fewer constituencies and gewogs, extending the time for bigger dzongkhags would mean voters spending hours at the common forums.
For the benefit it has to the voters and the political parties, the commission should consider the feedback it has received on the common forums. One study found that people are more likely to vote if they have attended common forums. Because the purpose of organising these sessions is to inform and educate the voters, the commission could be democratic in its actions by allowing the candidates few extra minutes to speak in the local dialect. It could allow these sessions to be interactive because democracy is as much about asking questions and questioning answers.
Allowing voters to engage in the discourse, instead of mandating them to be passive listeners would invigorate the democratic process. Past elections tell us about the risks of bribery and corruption in door-to-door campaigns. Candidates in Trongsa have cited social discord to not campaign door-to-door for the primaries.
The people’s call for the common forum to be more accommodative must be heard. It is on us to make common forums more relevant to the common people.