Democracy matures in the Third Parliament as party lines erode in the Parliament and Villages

In most Parliaments around the world, if the government had introduced a Tax Bill and Property Tax Bill just a few months before elections then it would be the opportune time for party politics and political grandstanding in the Parliament.

However, things played out very differently as it was difficult to make out who was the Ruling party MPs or Opposition MPs as a mix of party MPs voted on both sides with MPs taking stand based on issues and principles rather than party politics.

There were ruling party MPs opposing their own government and even Opposition MPs going with the government as sections of the two Tax Bills were discussed.

This even happened in the earlier sessions of The Third Parliament where many times discussions and votes on Bills did not happen on party lines.

Many MPs this paper talked to agreed with the above and they also pointed out a much more cordial and friendly atmosphere in the Parliament.

Party lines of the past

This was not necessarily the case in the first and second Parliaments where communication and understanding was limited, party lines were more bitter and competitive, which at times even got personal.

Matters even went to court as the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) dragged the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) government to court over taxes in the first Parliament, and during the second Parliament, not wanting to be left out of the action, the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) took the PDP government to court over taxes.

The first and second Parliaments were also marked by fights outside Parliament in the social media and media as parties put forward their positions through sharp press releases and other means each time the government slipped up or they saw an opportunity to score a point.

There was also a proliferation of fake accounts mainly with political agendas and things got downright filthy, ugly and even personal on social media.

The first two Parliaments also saw the political divide spreading down to the grassroots and villages and even families identified themselves and others as supporters of certain parties, and it was not uncommon to hear of conflict or misunderstanding between them.

Bringing harmony to society

The DNT MP from Sombeykha, Haa, Dorjee Wangmo said, “During the last two governments there was a lot of disharmony in society, so the main focus of our party in a small society like ours is to bring harmony in the society.”

“We are into this Parliament for four years and so when we visit our constituency the people are also saying that we have created harmony. The biggest achievement of DNT party is we have created harmony in society,” added Dorjee.

This sentiment was backed up by the Opposition Leader (OL) Dorji Wangdi who said the conduct of the top leaders in the Central government definitely has had a lot of impact on the atmosphere among the people.

The OL said, “I have been to 56 Gewogs in October and November. There is more harmony, cooperation and far lesser animosity and acrimony among the people.” 

He further said, “Having been through three Parliaments, I can say the atmosphere in the third Parliament is the best.”

MP Dorjee Wangmo said that only during elections, they follow party politics, but once they are elected then they have to serve the Tsa-Wa-Sum and give importance to the nation.

“Once we got elected we got along and it maybe because of our leadership. The Prime Minister makes sure that whatever we have to do we have done our homework and research and that we should not go personal or on party lines. We don’t feel like the ruling and opposition in the Parliament, but we go for nation first,” she added.

No bull dozing on party lines

The DNT Gangzur-Minjey MP Kinga Penjor heads the Economic and Finance Committee (EFC) of the National Assembly which made substantial changes to the Tax Bill of the government and also Pay Structure Reform Bill.

One would assume that with the head of the committee being from the ruling party they would largely leave the two government bills untouched. 

MP Kinga said, “We (DNT MPs) meet every session and express our views on the next day’s work. Lyonchhen does not lay down the party line since the party line is not healthy as it defeats the principles, and so in DNT the MPs are more independent. If he (PM) wants to bulldoze then we have to abide by his order as he is the party, leader but there is no bulldozing by the PM.”

He said that in the DNT MPs meeting during the Parliament sessions they discuss and express their views and give opposing views too. “It is not like army orders,” said the MP.

MP Kinga also agreed that there is no voting on party lines and the ruling and opposition parties does not have bitterness between them.

PM says not DNT govt but RGoB

The Prime Minister Dasho (Dr) Lotay Tshering said, “I think it is very simple. Bhutan is too small to be divided along party lines. It just so unfortunately happened in the first and second governments’ time that there were two dominant parties, and differences which started from the Parliament gets carried on to the villages.”

The PM said that in his very first press briefing he had asked the media and people to not call them the DNT government but instead as the RGoB.

“I have never used the word past governments as that is not correct. We are all ultimately talking about a system for one country that is Bhutan. We all care about this country so why should we divide,” said the PM.

On the deliberations in Parliament the PM said his briefing to the MPs is to go with their open mind and exercise their conscious mind.

“Once in a while we have to take a party stand on money bills to make sure it is passed, but even on that we don’t bulldoze as what is decided within the money bill is left to the lower house,” said the PM.

Another unique feature of the Third Parliament especially in this session was that the majority of the recommendations of the National Council (NC), which has no say on money bills, was accepted by the National Assembly (NA).

The PM said, “Once the money bills comes back from upper house we again deliberated and we accepted 90 percent or more of their recommendations.”

Lyonchhen said that is absolutely fine as if we look at the differences or political polarization that is evolving in the world, it is not about right or wrong, but it is because of differences in personal opinion.

“When do we have tussle – when you insist that your opinion is right and the other opinion is wrong. That is where we go wrong. It is in my principle that if it is not wrong then accept it. At the end of the day you want peace and harmony by accepting what others say,” said the PM

He said the discussions in the Parliament has an impact on the ground as whatever is discussed here is live and everybody listens and it gets filtered down.

The PM thanked the Opposition Party and the NC for their cooperation. 

No party line from OL

DPT MP Tshering Chhoden from Khar-Yurung said, “In the past democracy was for the first time and so in the beginning people went on party lines, but now we are going forward with the democratic setting and this is the third Parliament.”

MP Tshering also said that the OL does not lay down the party line.  “And even if he tells us it is not fair and then there is no justice and that would be cheating which is why  when we legislate laws it has to benefit the people and the country on a larger scale,” said the MP. 

However, she said that sometimes if the Opposition feels it is not good for the people and country then they oppose.

Speaker does not see parties

The Speaker of the NA Wangchuk Namgyel said that he does not see party in the hall.

The Speaker said, “This is the National Assembly and we have the members of the NA. I don’t see party and probably my approach is also that. There is the legislature and executive and you need to serve as a check and balance and if you go by party lines then where is the check and balance. The perception has to be that all is one. I had corrected the OL saying there is no party in the NA.”

The Speaker pointing to the absence of party lines said that on the Property Tax Bill and Tax Bill the MPs spoke the same things as usually there is controversy on tax bills.

OL says voting based on issues

The OL Dorji Wangdi who has served in three Parliaments till now said that while in the past too during the second Parliament there were many bills getting 100 percent votes, he would agree that in the third Parliament the votes are based largely on issues and not on party lines.

“During the discussions when we discuss section by section we say whatever we feel and we really have heated discussions sometimes, but once you have expressed your views whether you are ruling or opposition you have to respect democracy, because decisions have to go by majority,” said the OL.

He said the Opposition supports the Bills not necessarily agreeing 100 percent with all the provisions, but giving the benefit of the doubt.

“Not to say or hint anything to the members of the second Parliament but every Parliament is different as we are maturing and learning. You can say first is different from second and second from the third,” said the OL.

The OL said that credit for the atmosphere in the third Parliament must also go to the Opposition party which does provide advice behind the scenes.

The OL said his relationship is normal with the PM and he even had a good relation with former PM Dasho Tshering Tobgay as well, tough he was not the OL then, because they have to be professional.

“My biggest responsibility is to ensure that government functions in a legally correct way,” said the OL giving the example of how he questioned the government over delays in drafting of the 13th plan.

Working like teammates

A DNT MP on the condition of anonymity said that on certain things like money bills they are requested by the PM and also the Finance Minister to get it through otherwise other laws do not go on party lines.

The MP said that even on the Pay Restructure Bill the MPs were requested to not vote on things that would make them unpopular.

The MP said the Opposition also takes party lines sometimes.

The MP said that while there is appreciation of the Speaker doing a good job with his professionalism getting better with every session a recent rule asking MPs to get his clearance to talk to the media is not appreciated and is a bit too stringent.

The MP said that while in the Parliament the party line sometimes comes out, in the Committees they hardly feel the difference in party lines and they work just like teammates.

The MP said though politically the Tax Bills are a disaster with elections nearby, they needed to be passed as the government needs money after being hit hard by the pandemic where so much money had to be spent on COVID measures, vaccines, employing volunteers, funding COVID teams etc.

The MP said that the Third Parliament has reached this cooperative stage as it is like a learning process and with time everything changes.

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