For a party that had earlier been dismissed for being as good as dead by a private newspaper prior to the primary rounds, several factors have worked in the advantage of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to spring it back to life and eventually win the 2013 election race.
Firstly, from the primary round itself, PDP was clear that voters wanted change – as DPT got only 44.53 percent of the votes which was a big reduction from 67.2 percent of votes it got in 2008. In most two party countries, the political parties failing to get the magic 50 percent mark often sit in the Opposition.
A big factor of the 2013 elections was, which way DNT and DCT voters might vote as they had become the deciding factor in as many as 13 of the 33 constituencies won by DPT.
With the anti-incumbent factor working against DPT, PDP’s alternative appeal ,and the 7 DNT candidates including the president walking into PDP, all these factors helped the voters to make up their minds.
In terms of election issues, the biggest headache for DPT was the state of the economy.
The twin Rupee and Credit Crisis that stated in late 2011 was progressively getting worse, and it did not help that DPT denied the problem in many instances. The struggling private sector, high youth unemployment, and a growing trade deficit with high levels of debt only aggravated the situation further.
The incumbent government had failed to breathe life into its Economic Development Policy (EDP) and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) policy. Agricultural growth was also stagnant with basic issues like irrigation water and human-wildlife conflict not being resolved.
Another major issue was a series of corruption cases and controversies that rocked the government in its five years. Issues like Gyelpozhing, Chang Ugyen case, Denchi, Bhutan Lottery, Trowa Theater, City Bus, Education City, and Mining did nothing to dispel the perception that the incumbent government was not serious about its ‘zero tolerance to corruption policy.’
What made the corruption issues worse was the incumbent government’s tendency to deny everything even after facts came out. Its open battle with the Anti Corruption Comission (ACC) on Gyelpozhing using the OAG did more damage than the case itself.
This is also related to criticism that DPT was not hesitant to undermine democratic institution and principles when it came to protecting its own interests. It responded to critical media by imposing an economic embargo on advertisements through a confidential circular privy to its top leaders.
There was also heavy criticism on lack of consultation in general, especially on issues like, Pedestrian Day or the draconian Tobacco Act. The inability of the DPT to fulfill its promise of passing the Right to Information Bill made it into an election issue for other parties to pick on.
The DPT’s relation with the Monarchy also became a major issue during the elections as PDP candidate, one after the other, accused DPT of trying to grab the Constitutional authority of the Monarchy. This was, especially in relation to DPT’s overambitious Land Bill that gave kidu like powers to politicians.
Ironically though, DPT started its campaign by touting foreign policy achievements of establishing relations with 53 countries, and this became, perhaps, its greatest weakness in the end.
DPT’s hints that only its ministers could get foreign aid lead to PDP questioning the DPT’s foreign policy track record. They pointed to the DPT’s failure, in terms of the crucial Indo-Bhutan relations. What did not help DPT was that all signs showed that relations were not exactly on a warm footing with delays in aid and grants, and the well timed leaks in the Indian Press showing how India felt about the DPT government.
Reality hit home with withdrawal of LPG and Kerosene subsidy, along with notices that subsidies on Chukha and Excise Duty would also be withdrawn. The DPT responded with an ostrich like approach-denying the obvious and instead putting the blame on local conspiracy theories that further damaged DPT’s credibility.
Though DPT was counting on its minimum program in rural areas like farm roads, electricity and drinking water- many projects were of questionable construction quality while some others were delayed. In fact, the shortage of adequate drinking and irrigation badly harmed DPT’s prospects in rural areas. Farm roads that were useless in monsoons neutralized the impact of such a vast network of farm roads.
In terms of campaigning, DPT’s campaign style had a list of things, which may go down in future, as what a Bhutanese political party should not do.
Instead of clearly spelling out its own pledges, it went on the attack on PDP’s pledges. This backfired in three ways. Firstly, it made the PDP pledges popular, secondly, DPT did not have enough time to enunciate its own pledges, and third, it put a relaxed PDP on the offensive. PDP soon found that it had several more points to attack the incumbent DPT, and did not look back -doing DPT tremendous damage.
The other problem for DPT was its ultra aggressive and personal tone that did its image no favors. In a record of sorts so far, the DPT instead of restricting its complaints to PDP, went on to file complaints against the ACC, Media and BCCI. It attacked an innocuous ACC anti-corruption video by complaining against it, the party filed numerous and petty complaints against critical and factual media reports and the cherry on the cake was a vicious and personal attack on a respected and credible Interim Government member for merely stating the truth. The stringent, disrespectful, and personal nature of DPT’s many press releases and also open defamatory attack on common forums put off the many neutral observers.
Though factual errors were made by both parties during the race, some of the biggest ones were floated by the DPT. The party was publicly caught at several times on the wrong foot -making untrue and at times even defamatory statements. Be it denial of not having land near the Education City, saying this paper is owned by the PDP, saying that articles in major Indian newspapers quoting Indian officials were being planted by people in Bhutan or that PDP had hurt Indo-Bhutan ties. Already in the dock for relentlessly denying Gyelpozhing- only to be proved wrong in court the new set of denials and allegations harmed DPT’s credibility. This also backfired in an age of the internet and social media where every fact can be checked and rechecked by viewers.
DPT’s main trump card was its party president. However, going by the first presidential debate, the country learnt that the ex- Prime Minister is a great orator, but not a very good debater.
The performance of the former Opposition Leader in the debate did his reputation miracles, and put him on an equal footing with the DPT president. The former Opposition Leader took every opportunity to put his leadership on a higher moral pedestal from returning the Prado to giving up his Orange kabney, which DPT ministers refused to give up. The more accessible, less intimidating, and open nature of the former Opposition Leader made him endearing to voters, and positioned him as leader who would listen to their problems as well.
The PDP’s simple, but eye catching pledges like power tillers, SUV, gewog mechanics, and helicopters attracted the attention of voters.
In 2008, PDP lost disastrously as all major sections of voters like farmers, the private sector, and civil servants saw some reason or the other not to vote for PDP. DPT in 2013 put itself in the same position over the last five years doing many of the same things they warned people against PDP about in 2008.
While DPT relentlessly promoted GNH, ironically social problems like rising crime rates, crime against women, alcohol and drug abuse, and youth problems kept increasing.
In the end, a combination of anti-incumbency factor, need for change and disastrous campaign strategy worked against DPT and in favor of PDP. It was the wisdom of the voters that prevailed and ushered in the change of governance in 2013.