The eastern Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is gearing up for elections to its National Assembly, the 47-seat lower house of the country’s bicameral legislature.
Elections will be in two phases: a primary round on November 30, with all registered parties competing across Bhutan’s 20 Dzongkhags (administrative and judicial districts), and a runoff round on January 9, 2024, where the two parties with the highest votes in the primaries will field candidates across all 47 Demkhongs (electoral constituencies).
Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck will then invite the winner in the final face-off to form the new government.
Five parties are contesting these elections: Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP), Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), and Druk Thundrel Tshogpa (DTTP). With the term of the incumbent DNT, led by Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, ending on November 1, the king appointed an interim government headed by Chief Justice Chogyal Dago Rigdzin to oversee the election period.
Economic issues will be uppermost on voters’ minds as they head off to vote on November 30. Bhutan is still struggling with the economic aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic, notably through lost tourism revenue. Despite its cautious approach to external cultural influences (for instance, television was introduced only in 1999), and its policy of limiting tourist numbers by charging them daily fees for visiting the country (under its “high value, low impact” approach, meant to maximize revenue while minimizing cultural and environmental impact), tourism has become increasingly vital to Bhutan’s economy.
The importance of resolving economic challenges dominated the primary debate between party presidents on November 6, where each outlined their strategies for economic recovery. For instance, PDP’s leader, former Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay (2013-2018) focused on attracting foreign direct investment, and elsewhere, he has also spoken of expanding the country’s tourism sector. Meanwhile, DPT President Dorji Wangdi proposed further development of hydropower projects, continuing the initiatives started by the first DPT government, which was in power from 2008-2013.
The upcoming elections are the country’s fourth since its transition to democracy in 2008, a transition that was the culmination of a modernization drive spearheaded by the country’s monarchy.
The current king’s father and predecessor, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who ascended to the throne in 1972, introduced a series of reforms aimed at diversifying the country’s economy and modernizing its political institutions. As part of the reform process, he presided over constitutional changes to grant more autonomy to elected bodies. In 2006, he voluntarily abdicated in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar, the present king, who then oversaw the transformation of Bhutan into a constitutional monarchy by 2008, paving the way for its first democratic elections. Subsequent elections, held at five-year intervals in 2013 and 2018, have yielded a different government and a peaceful transfer of power each time.
Bhutan’s path to democracy has garnered considerable praise. However, its human rights record is tarnished by its treatment of the Lhotshampa minority, ethnically Nepalese people who began settling in Bhutan in the early 19th and 20th centuries. Perceiving them as a threat to the dominant Dzongkha-speaking Drukpa culture, the government implemented discriminatory policies, including the restrictive Citizenship Act of 1985, enforced through a 1988 census, and the “One Nation, One People” policy in 1989.
Consequently, many Bhutanese Nepalese were labeled as illegal immigrants, leading to severe crackdowns, mass expulsions in the early 1990s, and their eventual confinement in refugee camps in Nepal or dispersal across a growing diaspora. This ongoing and unresolved issue remains a dark chapter in Bhutan’s recent history, marring the country’s otherwise remarkable democratic success story.
In addition to economic challenges, the next government must also grapple with geopolitical issues, especially those stemming from its relationship with its two giant neighbors, India and China. Of particular concern are unresolved border disputes with China, in the Jakarlung and Pasamlung Valleys in northern Bhutan and in the Doklam Plateau in western Bhutan. Talks on resolving these boundaries have been ongoing since 1984, with Bhutan also operating under the added pressure of having to be sensitive to Indian concerns.
In contrast to China, with which Bhutan has no official diplomatic relations, Thimphu has maintained formal bilateral relations with India since 1968. However, close ties go back much earlier. In 1949, Bhutan signed a friendship treaty with New Delhi, providing India substantial influence over Bhutan’s foreign policy and defense matters in exchange for economic and military support. Although this treaty was revised in 2007 to grant Bhutan more autonomy, India still wields considerable influence.
Of Bhutan’s border disputes with China, the Doklam Plateau holds significant strategic importance for India, as it overlooks the Siliguri Corridor, a narrow, strategically vulnerable stretch of land linking India’s northeastern states with the rest of the country.
Consequently, India has historically viewed the notion of any Bhutanese concessions in Doklam to China, potentially in exchange for territory in the Jakarlung and Pasamlung Valleys, with apprehension. For instance, it was assumed by some observers that India’s decision to cut cooking oil and kerosene subsidies to Bhutan in 2013 was in response to then-Prime Minister Jigme Thinley’s meeting with China’s then-Premier Wen Jiabao, a charge India denied.
Tensions escalated in June 2017 when Chinese construction crews began extending a road into the Doklam Plateau. In response, India deployed troops to support Bhutan’s claims, leading to a tense two-month standoff with China. The standoff concluded in August with a mutual disengagement agreement between New Delhi and Beijing. The Bhutanese government under the Tshering administration later engaged in border delimitation talks with Beijing under a three-step roadmap signed in October 2021, to expedite an overall resolution. The urgency of these talks has been amplified by the escalating tensions in the broader China-India relationship, especially after the 2021 Galwan Valley clashes — a major border conflict where Indian and Chinese forces fought along their contested boundary.
As Bhutan prepares for its elections, the question of whether Prime Minister Tshering will return to power to continue these negotiations and address the myriad challenges facing Bhutan, or if a new government will take the reins, is yet to be answered. With numerous parties contesting, predicting the election’s outcome is difficult, especially since no single party has consistently dominated Bhutan’s political landscape.
What is apparent, however, is the resilience of Bhutan’s young democracy. The current election season has proceeded in a peaceful and orderly manner, consistent with trends evident in past elections. Despite the gravity of the issues confronting Bhutan, the tradition of regular, peaceful elections has become an established aspect of Bhutan’s political life. This is a commendable legacy, of which both the country’s monarchy and its people can be proud.