Of the 188 candidates who contested from the four parties in the primary round of Bhutan’s third democratic elections earlier this month, only 18 were women, and only one party was led by a woman. So can we hope against hope that there will be more women in parliament this time than after the two previous elections?
The Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP), led by Dasho Neten Zangmo, had the highest number of women candidates—six in total. Unfortunately, the BKP did not manage to get even 10 percent of the votes necessary to be eligible for state funding, and was one of the two parties that lost in the primaries. But the former ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), also experienced a shocking loss although they fielded only two women candidates.
This is not the first time a party led by a woman has lost. In the 2013 elections, the two parties led by women also lost. This time, the party president of the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) joined the former ruling PDP, and became Bhutan’s first female minister. And the Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT) party president is now a candidate of the former opposition party, the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT).
But the DPT and the DNT are through to the general elections. So there will be 94 candidates competing for 47 seats in the National Assembly. Between the two parties, there are 10 women candidates — a repeat of the first democratic elections in 2008. Four women were elected then. In 2013, eleven women made it to the general round, but only three became members of parliament.
The coverage of the recently concluded primaries suggested that the Bhutanese electorate voted for change. I am optimistic this spirit will carry forward to the general round and for once will be instrumental in increasing women’s representation in Bhutan’s parliament.
The ten women did not fare too badly in the primaries; at least five women won their constituencies and four primary winners are still in the election race. If all women are elected, there will be nine women in the National Assembly (two women are contesting from the same constituency). It isn’t just my gut feeling; the numbers themselves tell a more positive story.
With four women winning in the primaries and three others claiming the second highest number of votes, it is difficult to be pessimistic. An editorial in the national newspaper Kuensel, said: “There are certainly some stumbling blocks for the women in our society. Many do not see them as capable of outstanding or credible leadership,” but I do believe there’s more than just doom and gloom in store for women politicians this time.
Yes, there are social and cultural barriers. But there are also compelling political reasons for women to be voted into power, the most obvious being the rule of the majority. Ideally, the women ought to be elected on the basis of their credentials, but I will not be fussy about how they get voted in. I just want them to be elected. Frankly, I’m quite tired of arguing with patriarchal and privileged minds on why we need fast-track measures for more women to be in positions of governance. And fed up of minimal female representation in parliament.
Our ideological debates have done nothing to encourage women to join politics in the last decade. All political parties have been quoted in local media as saying it is exceedingly challenging to field women candidates. This is after a decade of “successful democracy.”
The Bhutanese government did, through a consultative process, try to push for 20 percent quota for women in all elected offices recently, but found little support. The idea was dropped because, as written in Kuensel, “women themselves were not in favour of the reservations.” I wonder who it was they consulted? It would be fair if the consultations were with women who have run and are running for office, not women who have no election experience. I am afraid the consultations have mostly been with women in privileged positions in the capital.
I confess I was one of those women until two years ago who felt quota would do more damage than good. I am completely in support of fast-track measures now after having worked with Bhutanese women who have run for elected office in local government as well as in politics.
I got into an argument with a semi-literate Bhutanese while the primary results were being declared. He said, “Of course, the PDP lost. There were signs that they would lose. Who told Lyonchhen (the Prime Minister) to carry a woman on his back on the eve of the elections?” He was referring to a photograph the former Prime Minister had tweeted which showed him carrying his wife on his back across a muddy stretch while on the campaign trail. The photo received a lot of online love, but in reality there were people like the one I argued with who saw this as bringing bad luck. Many Bhutanese were thinking this way. What chance do women presidents have when the former PM himself was judged harshly for carrying his wife on his back?
It is infuriating when you are privy to such conversations. I do believe Bhutan to be more gender-equal than most countries in the region, but these sexist mentalities abound. In the Bhutanese literary and oral tradition, women are overwhelmingly portrayed as being secondary to men—inferior because we are impure, so the misogyny is not surprising. It will take more than a generation to change this mentality.
I am impatient.
I would rather have token women in elected positions than men. We need more women in positions of leadership so that young Bhutanese of all genders think that leadership of and by all genders is the norm. We have had horrible male leaders but there’s barely any vitriol directed towards them as opposed to decent women leaders who are judged unforgivingly for the smallest of failures.
“Men are born with a quota anyway. It’s called patriarchy,” a friend of mine said to me recently. I’ll take quota and everything else for more women to be in elected offices. And hope. Hope is necessary.