Nestled in the eastern Himalayas, Bhutan conjures up images of peace and tranquility. Indeed, it is a country of serene and striking geographic beauty. But this setting brings with it an isolation that kept Bhutan politically sealed off from the rest of the world as an absolute monarchy until 2008, when it became a democracy.
Over the next couple of months Bhutan will take steps towards further consolidating its fledgling democracy. Its people will vote first for the National Council (the upper house of parliament) and then the National Assembly (the lower house).
This is the second time in their country’s history that the Bhutanese will be voting in parliamentary elections. Voting for the 25-member Council will take place on April 23. While voting dates for the more influential Assembly are yet to be announced, they are expected in June.
Bhutan’s first general election was held in March 2008. It was a two-horse race between the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) party and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Voter enthusiasm was high, with voter turnout of almost 80 percent. Several voters trudged through kilometers of mountainous terrain to take part. Although pre-election violence did occur, polling was peaceful.
Although some analysts predicted a close contest, the DPT swept the elections, winning 45 of the 47 seats in the National Assembly.
Will Bhutan’s second general election be any different? There a few key developments worth noting. For one, more parties are likely to enter the fray this time around. Further, voter turnout is expected to be lower. As for the outcome, the DPT is likely to win again, albeit by a smaller margin.
An absolute monarchy for a century ago, Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy in 2008, making it one of the youngest democracies in the world.
King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck took the first steps towards democratization by setting up a 130-member National Assembly in 1953. His son and successor Jigme Singye Wangchuck further loosened the monarchy’s grip on absolute power in 1998 when he took steps to rule Bhutan in conjunction with the National Assembly as well as the Council of Cabinet Ministers. He followed that up by setting in motion the drafting of a constitution in 2001.
Political parties – banned decades ago – were reintroduced in 2007. In December that year and January 2008, Bhutanese voted for their National Council. Three months later, they elected their National Assembly. The new democratically elected bicameral Parliament then enacted the Constitution.
One unique point about Bhutan’s rulers is their efforts to encourage the nation’s idyllic image, which largely stems from its remote alpine setting. Their efforts include, for instance, the concept of “Gross National Happiness,” a metric used to gauge a country’s well-being put forward by Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972. The concept boosted Bhutan’s image as an otherworldly kingdom, a country that was less concerned with wealth than with human well-being.
This “Shangri-La’ image was reinforced by Bhutan’s remoteness. Not only is it hard to access geographically, but successive rulers pursued policies that kept backpackers and mass tourists at bay. Steps were taken to guard the local culture from outside influences, including the restriction of communication. Bhutan opened up to radio broadcasting only in 1973, but held off television and Internet until 1999.
Bhutan’s democratic transition and the monarchy’s role in it have added to its positive image in the eyes of the world.
Unlike other South Asian countries where autocratic leaders have been loathe to relinquish power and need to be forced out of office through prolonged mass protests, Bhutan’s monarchy gradually loosened its hold on power. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated voluntarily in 2006 in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel.
The contrast with Nepal is stark. Decades of political activism and mass protests calling for multiparty democracy preceded Nepal’s transformation in 1990 from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one and then to a democracy. It took more mass protests and a decade-long Maoist insurgency to strip the monarchy of most powers in 2006.
Bhutan’s democracy, by contrast, was initiated by the monarchy. It was a “gift of the king to his people,” a Bhutanese official told The Diplomat. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official pointed out that “not only did Bhutan begin its journey to democratization from the palace, but also the monarchy has played a lead role in mobilizing people to vote and strengthen democracy.”
What is more, “the new Constitution places restrictions on the monarchy,” he observed. It is mandatory for future kings to step down at the age of 65. The king can also be removed by a two-thirds vote in Parliament.
However, not everyone is impressed with the palace’s role in democratizing Bhutan or in Bhutan’s democracy itself. “It wasn’t enlightened leadership, altruism or benevolence but the need to secure the survival of the monarchy that prompted the royals to agree to share power with politicians,” a Bhutanese dissident based in Nepal observed, adding that the fate of Nepal’s monarchy shook the Bhutanese royal family.
Bhutan’s royals feared that reluctance to reform would set off demands for an end to monarchy, perhaps even triggering an armed uprising. “It was to pre-empt such demands that they decided to democratize,” the dissident added.
According to Mathew Joseph C, associate professor at the Academy of International Studies in New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, and author of the book Ethnic Conflict in Bhutan, the royals’ decision to democratize was a “clever move” on the part of Bhutan’s monarchy and the Ngalong ruling elite.
In an email interview with The Diplomat, Joseph argued that the monarchy’s “democratization project” was aimed at “silencing the demand for real democracy that the democratic movement of Bhutanese people who were expelled from the country had raised.” Elections were “to hoodwink the international community” into believing that Bhutan was a democracy, he wrote.
According to Joseph, Bhutan is “not at all a democracy.” It is “completely controlled by the monarchy and the Ngalong ruling elite.… is beyond any sort of questioning.”
Drawing attention to the elitist origins of Bhutan’s constitution, Joseph pointed out that it was drafted “not by an elected constituent assembly but by experts.”
Critics also point to the rather elite composition of parliament. Election laws make it mandatory for candidates to be university graduates. In a country with widespread illiteracy, such laws automatically exclude most citizens, especially those from poor and marginalized communities.
However, it is Bhutan’s disenfranchisement of a significant portion of its population that is the most damning indictment of its democracy. Perceiving a political, demographic and cultural threat from the Lhotshampa community of ethnic Nepalis living in southern Bhutan, the Bhutanese elite launched a Bhutanization drive in the 1970s, followed by draconian citizenship and marriage acts that resulted in thousands of Lhotshampas being stripped of their citizenship. A census in 1988 that identified “illegal immigrants” was followed by large-scale expulsion of Lhotshampas from Bhutan in the early 1990s, who were subsequently denied the right to vote in the 2008 elections due to their refugee status.
Nonetheless, over the past five years Bhutan has taken steps to strengthen its democracy, holding local elections in 2011. But while elections may be a key component of democracy, but they do not by themselves make a vibrant democracy. Bhutan’s democracy will be remain fragile as long as it remains restricted to the nation’s elite university graduates and the state is identified with Dzongkha speaking Buddhists.
If the coming elections manage to be more inclusive, they may gain credibility. For a start, parties need to include Lhotshampas on their lists of candidates. Further, discussion and debate of the ethnic issue, which is prohibited under election laws, should be allowed during the campaign. In 2008, nine Nepali speaking candidates entered parliament as members of the DPT. This number is insufficient to effect change.
Now more than ever, Bhutan must address its conflict with the Lhotshampas. If the parliament that emerges from the upcoming elections does not give this issue priority, its commitment to democracy rings hollow.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is a political analyst based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues.