Bhutan is no more a kingdom, following its first parliamentary elections held in March 2008. These elections marked a new direction in Bhutan’s over 100 years transition to a democratic, constitutional monarchy. People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) were the only parties fighting the polls held on a bi-party system.
PDP was led by former Prime Minister and King Kheshar’s uncle Sangay Ngedup. The DTP, which roughly means Bhutan United Party, was also headed by a former Prime Minister, Jigmey Thinley. These two parties vied with each other in proving to be more loyal than the King.
Not surprisingly, the runaway winner in the contest, DPT, emerged as the party perceived as the more royalist of the two. With 44 of the 47 seats, DPT sees the vote as a mandate for continuity. The new Government, under Jigme Thinley, would do no more than continue the policies laid down by the ‘Dragon Kings’ over the years.
The Himalayan Kingdom has done equally well in raising per capita income and preserving its natural environment. The King will continue to hold wide influence, although not supreme power.
The country will have a bicameral legislature. The 25- member upper house is called the National Council. Twenty of its members are elected and five are to be appointed by the King.
The lower house, called the National Assembly, has strength of 47 members, elected for five years on the basis of universal adult suffrage. A total of 318,465 citizens, i.e. nearly 60 per cent of the Bhutanese population, have registered as voters for the National Assembly elections. The royal family and religions leaders do not exercise their franchise as they are to remain above politics.
Democracy in Bhutan is indeed a vision of the monarch. The fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, initiated the democratic process more than 25 years ago with the phased devolution of powers from the centre to the district and block levels and subsequently in 1998 from the throne to the elected Cabinet Ministers.
In 2005, he announced a draft democratic Constitution focused on parliamentary government with the King as the titular head.
The Constitution provides for removal of the monarch under certain exigencies through impeachment which requires three-fourths majority in the Parliament. The Constitutional monarch has to retire at the age of 65. The king abdicated the throne in December 2006 in favour of his eldest son, Keshar Namgyal Wangchuck.
It is an encouraging sign that the democratic experiment in Bhutan has been launched at a time of peace and prosperity, in sharp contrast to its neighbours Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar which are witnessing bloody struggle for democracy.
In fact, the decline and ignominious fall of the monarch in Nepal must have influenced, in some indirect way, both the monarchy and the people of Bhutan. King Jigme Wangchuk did not want anyone in his line to become a prisoner of circumstance.
Evidently, many Bhutanese have more faith in their king than in the accountability of their untried political parties. However, it is to the credit of the monarchy in Bhutan which has ensured smooth transition to democracy without any palpable pressure from force inside or outside their country. In this unique transition, democratic education preceded the elections.
This is rare not only in the region, but also elsewhere. The national TV channel, Bhutan- Broadcasting Service and three national newspapers carried extensive campaigns meant to educate the people about the dangers of coercion or corruption. The Election Commission of Bhutan, in particular ensured free, fair and accountable polls.
A viable solution of the Bhutanese refugee problem is in extricable linked to India’s regional foreign policy. During the Past 15 years, echoing Bhutan, India has insisted that the refugee problem was and remains a purely bilateral issue between Nepal and Bhutan.
Other powers, conscious of India’s geo-strategic clout in the two Himalayan kingdom’s, are not overly inclined to intervene on the refugee issue. India has compelling security reasons to consider a “change of tack”. It is time India put pressure on Bhutan to allow refugees to return home in safety and with dignity and end discrimination against its ethnic Nepali citizens.
Thus, the transition to democracy in Bhutan is a victory for their remarkable kings, the State, private institutions, and not importantly the Bhutanese people.