Conversation Reflects 10 Years of Democracy

Reflecting 10 Years of Democracy

Phuentsholing, March 29, 2018

The Druk Journal Conversation on “Democracy in Bhutan” attended by

43 representatives of civil society organisations.

Given the theme, the premise of the Conversation is the relevance and importance of civil society as the “third sector” in national governance. With the process of democratisation, the government is adjusting its functions in the context of overall governance, governance meaning the functioning of society.

Ten years may be too short to gauge the success of democracy. A more relevant question may be, is democracy working in Bhutan? Some say yes. Some say no. Some say may be.

The Druk Journal editor said that, in his own experience as a newspaper editor for about 26 years, Bhutan had seen phenomenal change. For example, the word democracy was viewed as being too sensitive to be used in a Monarchy until 2005. There was very little public debate. But, by 2008, politicians were mudslinging. Discourse on social media was toxic with hate speech.

The Conversation being based on the seventh issue of the The Druk Journal, the editor outlined some of the topics covered in the issue as discussions points. They represent a wide range of perspectives on the theme – democracy in Bhutan:

  • Political parties – basis and purpose
  • Local government – in the context of decentralisation
  • Thromde elections – who votes for the thrompon?
  • The electorate – how do they vote?
  • Views of previous Assembly members
  • Bhutanese politicians – who are they?
  • Gender – quota for women?
  • Youth – what are we teaching our youth?
  • Media including social media – role?
  • From the Parties – why should I vote for you?

Many participants shared their views as observers, as former politicians, as concerned citizens:

There are no ground rules – no clear regulations – in the electoral process. There is a lack of transparency and accountability that are the basis of a good democracy. Therefore there is no proper awareness and there is mudslinging. Families are split by political differences.

How do Bhutanese vote in the elections? In the absence of ideological positions, opinions polls, etc…. people vote for family, relatives, party, perception of Royal support. We lack political maturity. Therefore, politics is personalised.

There should be discussions on specific issues in parliament. Bills being introduced in parliament should be discussed by people. How do we deal with unemployment, addiction, etc.? Do we listen to young people? What should we do for our youth?

We need lively discussion in society on specific issues. We need to engage the government in dialogue and bring people into the discussion. It is important to talk before and after elections. Our voices must be heard.

How to create a policy statement around issues? Where do solutions come from?

The concept of a social media arbitrator does not work. One man can do nothing. One can report, but nothing will happen. Do we need to arbitrate? Can we? Technology is too advanced?

It is easier for civil society to criticise the government now that government is separated from the Throne. We have a level of comfort.

It is time for CSOs to grow to the next level and be the watchdog… Civil society needs to engage with government and provide feedback, views, suggest alternatives, instead of being passive recipients. Need to be more active. Be really there. We need to create that forum for ourselves.

CS can raise issues in meetings – we only talk about elections – not responsibilities. We are lively only when issues concern us directly.

We are uneducated on how to elect leaders. Whose role is it to educate people on democracy? Rural areas people need to be guided on voting.

The preparation is all mechanical. No one is talking about how to vote. In 2008 it was all about the EVM machine. So much emphasis on the mechanics. We don’t have discussions like on what basis do you elect someone? What’s the principles and essence of democracy?

They say you have to be apolitical. How can you be apolitical? You have to have a space. You have to be political. CSOs should be described as being non-partisan rather than apolitical.

We have the right systems but they don’t function yet – Constitutional bodies function like government ministries. They are manned by the same people. There is no independence.

ECB’s presence – when its time to talk we are not allowed to talk. We need permission to hold discussions.

The telecom facilities played a big role in the first election. The calls were recorded in the last 36 to 48 hours.

Women – myth versus reality (women in elected offices). Should there be quota for women in parliament? Women voters don’t support women candidates. Bhutanese women think other women know nothing. In the past it was convenient to just send them to attend the zomdue. Even in college level elections women are least preferred to lead – RTC student president, etc. – there are many more women but they never get elected.

Our society faces a trust deficit. People don’t trust media or parties or politicians, now even neighbours. Trust was the biggest capital for a society. Suddenly we have become so suspicious. Things are all declared sensitive. Many people stopped voting by the second election.

One positive comment: We should not be too impatient – trust building and relationship building is happening. We shouldn’t be complacent – work on it and put pressure on it. CSOs are mobilising resources and contributing.