While the 2013 general election is the main topic of discussion these days what is more relevant to Bhutan is the growth of our young democracy from 2008 to 2012.
The last four years of our democracy have been importantly mainly from the point of the evolution of our young democracy and a period in which democratic institutions sought to find their place.
The last four years was an exploratory trip for an infant Bhutanese democracy that sailed to new destinations and also had to stop on occasions due to stormy conditions.
The Election Commission of Bhutan has proven itself to be an exemplary organization which has grown in professionalism and also as a strong democratic institution. It’s successful conduct of the 2008 election and the recent local government elections are a testimony to that. Though it has been criticized at times for being rigid and inflexible by both media houses (media rules on election reporting) and politicians (Local Government Act) the ECB has defended its stance pointing to the constitution and election laws.
The media has been a major catalyst in Bhutanese democracy. It has been praised by many for bringing out tough issues and holding the powerful to account. The media has played a huge role in exploring the boundaries of Bhutanese democracy.
However, the media is also accused of being unprofessional, brash, biased and sensational. Some critics point out that despite the many successes a unique shortcoming of some of the bright lights of Bhutanese journalism is the inability to understand or adapt to local conventions and hence adopt methods and tones that are normal in foreign climes but too harsh for the delicate sensitivities in a young democracy and small society.
The Bhutanese media’s next challenge may be to find a way of remaining ethical, critical and vigilant but getting the message across in a way in which policy makers take action on the message and not feel tempted to act against the messenger.
After making its presence felt through criticism and controversy the media should also aim for gaining credibility and respectability within all sections of Bhutan without compromising on its ethics and responsibility as the fourth estate. However, credibility in the media should not be mistaken with sycophancy and a failure to carry out its truth telling duty.
The Parliament from its early hiccups, logjams and image crisis is now slowly but surely evolving into a more effective institution with increasing maturity. MPs today are conducting more research and consultations than two to three years ago. The National Assembly and National Council divide is also being overcome with mechanisms of compromise through its various committees and meetings. There, however, is scope for improvement in MPs playing a more active role in highlighting developmental and other needs of their constituencies. The Parliament could also be more pro active on key democratic and pro-people legislations like RTI.
Though the Supreme Court’s verdict on the tax case caused considerable pain to the elected government with ministers threatening to resign, it also showed that the judiciary is a distinct and independent institution. The increasing number of professionally qualified judges and increasing legal awareness is also contributing to a more professional judiciary. Despite all this the judiciary is still feared more than being respected. Perhaps it should aim more for the latter for its own growth and credibility.
The Executive that is the government led by the council of ministers is also another dynamic catalyst with more say than any other institution in the success or failure of democracy and democratic institutions in Bhutan. The government enjoyed a honeymoon and relatively trouble free period in its first three years. Though it has failed to live up to several fancy promises like making Bhutan a financial hub etc it is largely delivering on the basic minimum programs like rural electrification, farm roads etc.
However a series of setbacks, scams and crises in the last one year has become a trial by fire of the government’s commitment to democracy in the true sense. Within the cabinet itself while there are some ministers who are tolerant of criticism and truly democratic, there are also others who are stuck in the past, intolerant of criticism, and extremely sensitive with a growing inclination to hit back hard at critics. If this hard line faction of the cabinet and party has its way then democracy in Bhutan may have to go for a long walk through the wilderness. However, the direction to be taken will be in the hands of the Prime Minister who has asserted on numerous occasions his commitment to a vibrant and strong democracy in Bhutan.