The time for the Bhutanese to make their choice has come.
A flurry of candidates is expressing their intent to contest in the upcoming National Council elections, heeding to the national call and to give people more choices. The numbers are encouraging but women aspirants are a handful, a trend the country has witnessed and lamented about since its transition into a democracy.
While much remains to be done to address this lacuna, the Election Commission of Bhutan is making efforts to increase voter turn out. The commission will allow voters to cast their postal ballots from their place of residence through 64 facilitation booths. Mobile booths to allow voting for patients in hospitals and prisoners will also be made available.
This is a progressive move and the commission’s effort to make the election process inclusive and accessible is laudable. But there is a need to do more for when we talk about inclusiveness, we must also include those with special needs.
The postal ballot rules mention about providing postal ballot in braille for visually impaired voters and has a provision to enable physically challenged voters to vote. It is not yet clear if the commission would explore these possibilities but if it means inclusiveness, it must do more.
But easing the process of posting the ballot would not necessarily mean that the problems associated with wrong registration and details would be addressed. In the past elections, postal ballots were rejected, not because people were unable to post the ballots to their returning officers. They were rejected because the ballots were not filled in correctly.
This calls for the commission to ease its postal ballot voting process. Its voter education programmes must re-educate voters on filling the postal ballots correctly. Otherwise, we risk defeating the objective of the commission’s recent reform. Statistics with the commission show that in the 2008 and 2013 parliamentary elections, the commission received a total of 203,081 applications for postal ballots. Of this, 128,030 or 63 percent were valid ballots.
While the commission is making efforts to enhance voter turn out with each dzongkhag devising strategies, observers are already sensing voter fatigue. For the people in the communities, attending zomdus and listening to officials and politicians on familiarisation could be a tiring exercise. Some locals say that the candidates change but not their living situation.
Such lack of enthusiasm from the people even before the election season picks pace is worrying. The people, parties, candidates and the commission must not let this apathy gain ground. Authorities have to understand the reasons behind such notions because it could deter voters from exercising their rights.
All Bhutanese must participate in the democratic process. Voting is a responsibility and a right. The commission must ensure that this right is protected.