One interesting development in the 2013 elections is an increasing realization that as elections, now and in the future, gets more competitive – they cannot be won without strong grassroots party structures.
This is being observed due to the re-emergence of the party tshogpas, as a political force, and a reality that cannot be ignored.
Given the unique circumstances of the general elections in 2008, the party tshogpas- many of whom were with PDP then got a bad name, primarily for misleading their leaders of an imminent win. In some cases, the registered tshogpas did not even vote for their own party- going by the post poll numbers calculation.
After the 2008 elections, the general feeling was that the role of party tshogpas was overhyped, and that tshogpas had no important role to play in future elections. However, that has changed in 2013 as the role of party tshogpas will be crucial in deciding who will form the next government.
These party workers play an influential role, as tshogpas go from house to house and village to village, to garner support for their parties.
In the 2013 primary rounds, all four competing parties had party tshogpas working for them, mainly in the villages, playing an influential role though not always an angelic one. The two new parties did not have as strong a network as the older parties. Of the older parties, DPT was ahead by leaps and bounds of PDP in terms of not only numbers of tshogpas, but also party offices and a functional party structure. This was helped in large part, by the fact, that 45 DPT’s MPs contributed a part of their pay every month to maintain the party structure.
On the positive side, the tshogpas play an important role in terms of spreading political awareness, encouraging people to vote, alerting them to issues, and galvanizing public opinion. They also serve as the eyes, ears, and messengers for the parties.
However, in a continuation of sorts from the 2008 elections, the negative role of tshogpas seems to be overshadowing their other function, and for good reason too. Many election disputes and ugliness seem to centre on the over enthusiastic party tshogpas willing to go to almost any extent to make sure that their candidates win.
The problem with tshogpas in Bhutan is the same as with party workers in other developing countries, especially during elections. There is first a sizeable section of them who are equivalent to paid mercenaries, as they work for the party for a three or four month salary. Then, there is a smaller group of core and permanent members, who over time run a virtual parallel government in their areas with MPs and even ministers a phone call away.
These functionaries not only exert authority among the people, but also play a role in politicizing element of the local government and have an influence on the local administration. In the long run, there are signs that tshogpas could lead to difference in services and facilities offered by the government to people.
Apart from being involved in questionable electoral practices and party disputes, the tshogpas have also shown that they are not above divisive politics.
Given the information available from the media, social media and parties, party tshogpas are trying to capitalize on regional politics to give their party an advantage. This is unfortunate as tshogpas are veering towards the oldest and dirtiest political trick of divide and rule.
Another incredible and unethical role that tshogpas have managed to play, especially in remote areas, is to be the propaganda arm of a political party to brainwash voters into believing in half truths and lies and to distrust hard facts.
Many of the things that we take for as facts in urban areas like, corruption, economic problems, unethical practices, etc. , have been painted as all lies and fiction by party tshogpas in rural areas. Voters have instead been misled with falsehoods and rumors spread by tshogpas.
This has all the more impact because Bhutan is still largely an oral society where words and rumors seem to have a wildfire impact compared to written words and actual facts.
What should be a major issue of concern here is that since the majority of Bhutanese are illiterate, unexposed, and not politically mature- they will be susceptible to the dirty politics played by tshogpas.
Tshogpas in the 2013 elections have also lived up to their old reputation of dividing communities, families, and terrorizing voters- especially in the rural areas. It is also questionable how tshogpas, at times, coerce villagers into becoming party members.
At the end of the day, all parties and candidates should play a restraining role on their tshogpas and encourage them to practice responsible politics, but so far, the very opposite seems to be happening.
“Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”