Prime Minister Dasho (Dr) Lotay Tshering

DNT’s Bold Gamble as 2023 approaches

In mid 2010 the first elected government announced that it would be coming up soon with taxes to prevent the consumption of unhealthy junk food.

Even though it had 45 MPs in Parliament the government soon gave up the idea of a junk food tax due to media and public backlash.

The first and second elected governments also skimped in updating the Land Tax lying dormant since the rates were last fixed in 1992.

An internal document talked about how politicians were averse to reforming the land tax due to political implications.

Both the above governments were also extremely wary when it came to matters of civil service pay and benefits.

In both the 2013 and 2018 general elections all political parties, including DNT, tried to mollycoddle civil servants promising them generous hikes and benefits.

With elections just around the corner in 2023, the current government in a matter of one week not only introduced taxes on junk food and other imports, but also brought in higher value based land taxes, and if that was not enough, it brought in a Pay Bill restructuring the entire pay system of the civil service and introducing the concept of performance based pay.

This is already in the backdrop of other ongoing reforms in the Civil Service, Tourism and others.

Observers and analysts, including active politicians, have wondered if the current government is on a politically suicidal path bringing in two major tax legislations, and that too just before the elections.

The DNT government and its party functionaries are well aware of the pain that the reforms, taxes and changes will cause, but they are banking or even gambling on the fact that more aware voters will recognize the long term benefits of the above moves.

Here, Prime Minister and DNT President Dasho (Dr) Lotay Tshering said, “People will look at the wider and deeper meaning of the reforms. There is heavy impact and the decisions are bold decisions and good decisions, and that gives us the excitement.”

In terms of political backlash, Lyonchhen said he does not think it will happen because between 2008 and now the literacy and awareness rate has gone very high among voters.

“The main feature of why I don’t like being in politics is when people call me a politician and people connote politicians negatively. Everyone says politicians are liars, they are cheaters, they are for their own interests and not for the long terms interests but we are not like that,” said Lyonchhen. 

“If the nation benefits, I think we all should celebrate and if the nation benefits why shouldn’t we do it. 10 or 20 years later when we are older and look back then this is the charm that we want to leave behind,” said Lyonchhen alluding to all the reforms being carried out.

Lyonchhen said in 2019 they were preparing to really perform and roll out the 12th plan and by early 2020 they had said the tagline is ‘action time’ as the preparatory time is over, but just then the pandemic took them by surprise and they couldn’t do the things they wanted to.

“We had to save lives and now coming out of the pandemic if we were to do things normally then there would be absolutely no charm,” said Lyonchhen.

“From 2020 till now (pandemic) the way we functioned has given us results on the health front that nobody expected of us. It was not because we were doctors, but the result came out like this because we went by the facts on the ground,” said Lyonchhen.

He said in the case of reforms His Majesty has been time and again telling the whole nation that we need to reform.

“The first National Day that we attended in Samtse the main theme was reform, in Thimphu it was reform and in Punakha too it was reform. How can we keep talking about reform and not reform and how can we keep preaching about change and not change?” said Lyonchhen. 

Lyonchhen said that change for him means that he must change himself first.

“Now the biggest change in me is that when I hear certain things I do not like to hear, I pay a lot of attention to this as probably this is what I missed in life. Choosing to listen to things that I want to listen and ignoring things that I don’t want to listen and dismissing it is not the way,” said Lyonchhen.

He said Bhutanese have wasted enough time assuming we know everything when we don’t.

From here Lyonchhen requested that no government should give zero tax as it is wrong under the taxation policy. “If it belongs to you and you earn something on it then you pay a certain tax,” he said.

He said in Clean Wage in the salary structure the principle itself is that whatever allowances and benefits are given must serve its intended purpose, but in our case it was not be serving its intended purpose.

“I am not saying its illegal, but till now it was not implemented well.”

“If we can go by the facts then Bhutan will develop. Isn’t this what we have talking about and subconsciously what we have been waiting for?” said Lyonchhen. 

“We have very very less stupid people in the country. You cannot say this is a good move and kick the government out. So I am banking on the literate lot and aware people,” said Lyonchhen.

The PM said that media has an important role to play as well in nation building.

The DNT General Secretary Phurba said those who are negatively affected by the governments decisions may not like the government, but the rest appreciate it.

“For example when the Drayangs were closed down the Drayang owners were not happy with us but the majority appreciated us,” said Phurba.

He said when they work some people will always be affected, but the majority sees that it is for national interest, not for votes and there is no personal agenda.

“Just when the people were beginning to find this out His Majesty The King in the recent address said that this government is fearless and firm and so the public’s doubts were confirmed too,” said Phurba.

He said the public were suspecting that this government is fearless and one that will look at the future and this doubt of theirs were confirmed during the Royal Address.

He said in terms of the property tax people in the villages appreciate the tax will be value based because earlier the one-acre tax of Sakteng and one-acre tax of Debsi was the same.

Lyonpo Dorji Tshering said, “I have some friends who openly criticizes the government saying it is not taking bold decisions and that whoever comes works only for the vote and gives freebies and that nobody is looking at the long term. But when we take bold decisions then they are shouting and so now when we take bold decisions you want a mild decision.”

The Draagteng-Langthil MP Gyem Dorji and also the DNT party whip in Parliament said that when various taxes like property tax, tax on goods etc was declared at once there was initially a shock, but gradually people understood it and after doing the practical calculations then the impact was not as much as initially feared.

A DNT member said that some major examples of decisions that are unpopular for votes but good for the nation, now and for later, are private schools and class 10 exams cut off and assessment modality, Mines and Minerals Bills and the government stance to hand over Dolomite and Gypsum to SMCL, dissolution of standalone bars, gaydrung discontinuation and tourism reform.

The member said that on hydropower people measure the performance of the government through inception of new projects, but it is not advisable anymore until they clear the ongoing projects.

With that being said there is also a fatalist element to the party right from 2018 which has seen that both DPT and PDP fell after 5 years’ despite being quite popular in their own time. So a certain approach also present within the party is that people are prone to changing governments every five years and so to use the five years to carry out long term reforms or even unpopular reforms without worrying about the political consequences, but looking at the long term benefit.

Lyonpo Dorji Tshering said “In the 2023 election I do not care if it affects me as a day will come when they will regret that they did not vote for us and even if that regret comes 10 years later then it is fine.”

Lyonpo said that in 2029 and 2030 there will be a lot of people who will come forward and appreciate what the DNT government has done.

“More and more people will regret that they did not not vote for us in 2023. This is enough for us. It is not like we have to stay in politics and earn as if the country does well then we will all benefit,” said Lyonpo.

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