Why PDP lost, DNT won and DPT held on

On paper, PDP was the strongest party in the 2018 elections, based on its performance. This was acknowledged by most election observers and was also the wisdom on the political street.

This was why a lot of high profile candidates rushed to join PDP, while some other parties had to make do with junior civil servants or young graduates holding obscure jobs.

The reason for PDP’s perception of strength was that it had revived an economy in the doldrums in 2013 by resolving the rupee crisis and reopening loans. It had further carried out popular measures like reducing loan interest rates, lifting import bans, reducing PIT rates, reducing fuel rates, doing away with BIT for rural shops, giving 100 units electricity free in rural areas, creating subsidized employment schemes etc.

It had also avoided the dreaded and big ‘C’ or corruption and instead took proactive measures where there was even a hint of allegation. PDP came off with a clean image.

In terms of governance it avoided any major hiccups and did not go after its political rivals and even appointed the close family members of its political rival DPT, to senior posts in the government.

PDP, in short, had avoided almost all the big mistakes that DPT made in its 2008-13 reign and was sitting pretty expecting to at least make at to the final round.

Another reason for PDP’s confidence was the internal math that it would most definitely form the government again if DPT made it to the final round as it counted upon DNT supporters to vote for it in larger numbers.

However, there were powerful factors that led to an unceremonious exit.

PDP had made adjustments for these factors by reducing its current tally of 33 seats in the NA to just a few seats above the 24 seat mark, but it did not factor that it would be out in the first round.

Anti-incumbency

What hurt PDP the most and almost every party and candidate before it in past elections is the naturally high level of anti-incumbency in Bhutanese politics.

With the third general election, it is very clear that Bhutanese voters have little or no patience for one political party ruling for a long time, especially, since voters set a very high standard of governance and also have high expectations.

As in the 2013 elections, anti-incumbency played out strongly in western and southern Bhutan, two regions that have a high level of political awareness. The biggest beneficiary of this was the DNT which picked up almost all its 16 seats and the biggest vote tally in the west and south.

Anti-incumbency also played out to a degree in central and eastern Bhutan but it was mostly against PDP and benefitted DPT which got 22 seats, almost exclusively from the east excluding the two it got from Dopuchen-Tading in Samtse and Lamgong-Wangchang in Paro.

DNT also benefited from this backlash as it picked up some votes in the east.

While PDP was knocked out, its performance was still commendable given that it secured a very respectable 79,883 votes. This will make PDP a viable third pole in Bhutanese politics after DNT and DPT, and especially so for the 2023 elections.

Postal ballots

PDP would have won the 2018 primary round race as the highest vote getter if only EVM votes were counted. It secured the highest EVM votes at 56,180 compared to DNT’s 55,166 and DPT’s 53,108.

However, PDP lost out severely in the postal ballots getting only 23,703 compared to DNT’s 37,556 and DPT’s 36,912.

The Bhutanese in an earlier article had pointed out that postal ballots could very well be decisive in the primary and general elections.

An interesting and previously unknown aspect is that a regional break up of postal ballots show the largest share of postal ballot belonging to the six eastern Dzongkhags.

The six eastern Dzongkhags by themselves have 66,969 registered postal voters forming 50.05 percent of the total 133,795 voters of 20 Dzongkhags.

With DPT winning big in the eastern Dzongkhags, the bulk of the postal ballots from there went to them.

The top three registered postal voters are from Trashigang at 19,267 followed by Mongar at 12,786 and Pemagatshel at 11,536.

Southern Bhutan, despite having a lot of voters, does not have as much postal voters. The postal voters’ numbers are much lower in Western Bhutan due to a lower vote base.

Regionalism and polarization

The 2013 general elections saw politicians and political parties openly talking about regionalism in politics and how DPT was being identified as a party of the East and PDP of the West.

In fact, some of the DNT leaders while joining PDP in 2013 openly said that they are joining in part to bridge this divide. PDP on its part took in the DNT leaders to strengthen its eastern base.

The 2013 general election results saw DPT holding on to 15 seats of which 11 came from the eastern Dzongkhags.

In the 2018 primary round results, with anti-incumbency and change being a strong factor, PDP was relegated to the second position in most western and southern Dzongkhags with DPT mostly being a distant third.

However, in the east DPT won almost all the seats in the eastern Dzongkhags except for one seat of Gangzur-Minjey. Both DNT and PDP fared poorly in the east.

It is now clear that DPT, for now, is immune to anti-incumbency in the east and a significant number from there have identified the party with their own regional identity.

The huge vote margins in Dzongkhags like Pemagatshel, Mongar and others showed a deep loyalty to DPT by eastern voters, no matter what political winds are blowing or whatever the issues at hand.

Also, DPT voters and supporters wanted to somehow ‘avenge’ the 2013 general election results.

This was accompanied with an undercurrent of polarization that benefitted DPT, as the majority of eastern votes polarized in favour of DPT.

Constituency debates

A big new change in the 2018 Primary round was the BBS and ECB organized Constituency level debates that saw the candidates of 4 parties taking part in debates that were around one hour and 45 minutes each.

Here the biggest beneficiary was the DNT, which did well in most of the debates and seemed to have come prepared.

PDP despite having a lot of star candidates did not perform as expected and it was clear that there were coordination issues.

DPT’s relatively weaker candidates seemed to have come prepared and punched above their weight in a fair number of debates. BKP fared poorly compared to others.

The debates gave DNT a lot of exposure and greatly reduced the disadvantage of not being as well known as PDP and DPT.

The DNT’s messaging of change and the dangers of two parties holding on to power for too long seems to have hit home with voters.

Party machinery

Despite having 33 MP’s in the National Assembly the PDP failed to look after and strengthen its party organization and base.

The approach of the PDP leadership was that voters will vote for them based purely on their performance in the five years and so party coordinators, tshogpas and workers were ignored.

PDP workers and supporters were made to feel unwelcome by PDP leaders who associated contact with them as not being professional or harming their clean ‘apolitical’ image.

In stark contrast DNT spent the last five years strengthening its party and managing well with limited resources. In fact, it had the highest number of registered voters compared to all other parties.

An important step taken by DNT was in meeting with different professional groups and associations to find out their problems and come up with solutions. These mass contact programs along with an all out familiarization campaign greatly helped DNT.

During the 2018 polls DNT workers were clearly more active and well coordinated compared to PDP which had many big names at the local level but they clearly failed to fire or even backfired.

PDP’s switching of a large number of candidates was one trick to ride out anti-incumbency but this too did not pay off as expected.

Social media

PDP started losing the social media game from day one. The most damaging of all was Bhutanese News & Forums which was more sympathetic to DPT. PDP had no effective counter and did everything too little and too late. The forum through a combination of fake news, incendiary posts and entertainment hit PDP hard, including any perceived critics of DPT.

The reluctance of the PDP leadership to take on such forums head on and denounce fake news on it cost it dearly in the end.

Anonymous DPT supporters used social media more effectively to paint its own narrative of 2013-18, irrespective of the facts.

A good example of the failure of the PDP to counter the fake news was the fake news that it had planned to make people pay for medical services from their own pocket. This was even repeated by some rival candidates but there was no counter response.

The language barrier

The DNT President made a huge impact in southern Bhutan speaking fluent Lhotsamph kha in many meetings with videos even going viral. The breaking of the language barrier not only allowed voters to understand the pledges better but it also brought them closer to the party President and party.

By comparison the PDP President’s Lhotsamph was spoken with effort. Also what did not help the PDP President was his inability to speak Tshangla the native language of the majority in the east.  Neither the DNT nor DPT Presidents suffered from this language set back.

Populist pledges

A major feature of the 2018 polls was highly populist pledges by all four parties.

The high populism, which even PDP engaged in, hurt PDP the most as it seemed like not much was achieved and a whole lot more can be done irrespective of the resources available.

Developmental issues, bureaucracy and others

While PDP implemented a gigantic 11th plan and achieved several things, it clearly was not enough for the voters.

The growing impact of climate change on drinking and irrigation water must have had a major impact, as many villages and even towns struggled with the issue. The irrigation and drinking water infrastructure built by PDP did not seem to keep up with drying sources and water woes.

There were issues raised with the quality of farm roads and it did not help PDP that the elections coincided with the monsoons.

Though a lot of electrical fencing was done, human-wildlife conflict still remains a major issue.

The private sector has benefited with lower loan interest rates, solving of the rupee crisis etc., but it still remains weak and red tape is still a challenge.

The repeated delays in the hydro projects and failure to get a deal on the trilateral Dorjilung project must also have hurt- especially with ballooning hydro loans.

Despite PDP’s efforts to improve the bureaucracy and introduce e-services the bureaucracy still remains largely inefficient, slow, unaccountable and full of red tape.

This is maybe why the poor quality of medical facilities and services raised by DNT hit home across the country.

The PDP’s pledges to the bureaucracy for salary hikes, 1.5 mn vehicle quota, same retirement age etc. not only failed to win the support of civil servants and undo the 2014 damage of high hikes for MPs, but it instead angered and alienated the private sector and the government corporate sector too.

While foreign policy was not a clearly articulated part of the 2018 primary round it remained there in background.

While DPT could not attack PDP much on the economy or corruption it, during the last five years, did not hesitate to point to PDP’s inability to establish new diplomatic ties compared to DPT’s time.

A nixed Japanese embassy in Thimphu also did not help.

The Cross Border in Trade and Electricity (CBTE) guidelines surprise sprung by India on Bhutan did not help the PDP government on the hydropower front.

About Tenzing Lamsang

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