In the 2008 electoral race while candidates had mainly diplomatic words for each other in the media, the real electoral battle was what was whispered by party members in villages and towns or half suggested by party leaders.
It was only occasionally that party candidates or workers made official allegations against each other in the formal media or filed complaints with the ECB.
Many would argue that the 2008 election was effectively won by this informal campaigning.
This is also what is appearing to repeat itself in the 2013 elections, though to a lesser degree. Even with three new parties in the fray the political tone in the formal media has been mainly safe, diplomatic and focused on promoting the respective party’s plans and programs.
Criticism has been indirect and mainly limited to the obvious issues like employment, private sector development and etc.
However, there are already early indications that informally the political race is getting more competitive with party workers and members not hesitating to point out each other’s flaws and shortcomings well away from the media glare.
In many ways the above trend is only a manifestation of the larger psyche of a small Bhutanese society which is more comfortable pulling strings in the background and playing on the back foot, rather than coming out on the main stage in a public manner.
What makes the race more interesting and visceral this time is a more open environment, more parties and also more ammunition to fire at each other.
It is only natural that the incumbent government will come under the heaviest shelling from the other parties on issues like the rupee shortage, credit crunch, scams, governance issues and etc. Questions will be raised on the performance and character of individual leaders and their ability to lead.
The Opposition will also come under attack from those hoping to replace it. The Opposition Party’s effectiveness will be questioned and some may offer themselves as a stronger opposition party.
It will also be no picnic for the new parties who will have to primarily struggle to let the people known that they even exist. Rival parties and party workers will raise questions over the credibility and leadership capacity of the new leaders and candidates. The past of these relatively new leaders will be researched and obvious infractions pointed out.
There is an overwhelming temptation on the part of political pundits and others to label all of this as proof that politics is a ‘dirty game’.
However, it is important to remember that the process of electoral politics, even at the best of times, is not pretty or sterilized in any democracy. It is comparable to an organic vegetable garden that will smell to the heavens when it is being gardened but the resultant fruits are safe, nutritious and well worth the effort.
In a democracy the people are the rulers and so everyone has the right to know the good, bad and ugly about a leader they are about to elect. That is why components like freedom of speech, freedom to criticize and freedom of press are as important as having elections.
Truth, however, unsavory about a public official may leave a bad taste in many mouths but it is as important as the bitter medicine that cures an illness.
In more developed democracies like the USA, U.K, Scandinavian countries etc. the press, civil society and rival parties do a thorough and public background check on any contesting candidate.
This kind of political auditing ensures that only credible and honest politicians are elected. It is also helps that the high level of education and political awareness makes people vote with their heads and not just hearts in these countries.
At the same time real dirty politics like bribing or intimidating voters, appealing to ethnic and regional loyalties, sabotaging voting booths, untrue and defamatory campaigning and anything else that violates electoral laws cannot be tolerated.
“Allowing ourselves to become a nation of silent, secretive, timid citizens is likely to result in a system of democracy and justice that is neither very democratic nor very just.”