The strong performance of the DPT in the eastern Dzongkhags in 2008 and especially so in the 2013 and 2018 general elections has lead to the popular presumption that the east is a DPT stronghold for a long time to come.
This apparent lack of anti-incumbency in the east has lead to charges of regionalism in Bhutanese politics and accusations of people in the east voting along ethnic lines.
However, a closer look shows the presence of growing anti-incumbency against DPT in eastern Bhutan with shrinking share of votes, smaller victory margins and loss of seats.
The data shows that alleged regional voting in the east is not on the rise, as is popularly perceived, but it is in fact on the decline since the last three elections.
It also shows that anti-incumbency is very much there in the east but is slower acting than in the west or south.
DPT is on the decline in Pemagatshel, Mongar, Trashigang and Lhuentse which provides 13 seats between them. The first three are the biggest eastern Dzongkhags both in population and number of seats- giving 11 seats.
Furthermore, in 2018, DPT has won mainly narrow victories in constituencies in Samdrupjongkhar, Trashiyangtse, Zhemgang and Bumthang to win back seats it lost in 2013. This back and forth and growing anti-incumbency means that in the four Dzongkhags, except for the Opposition leader’s seat in Chhoekhor-Tang, all other seats are up for grabs in the future.
Pemagatshel and Mongar
If a person were asked to pick the strongest five constituencies for DPT since 2008, then they would be the three constituencies of Khar-Yurung, Nanong-Shumar and Nganglam in Pemagatshel and the two seats of Dramedtse-Ngatshang and Kengkhar-Weringla in Mongar.
Interestingly, DPT has seen the sharpest vote declines in the last three general elections in exactly these five seats and these two Dzongkhags.
The strongest DPT constituency in Bhutan is Khar-Yurung where in 2008 it got 92.4 % of the votes. This declined to 78.3% in 2013 and in 2018 further slipped to 70.31%.
The constituency of the former DPT President and Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley Nanong-Shumar got 81.9 percent of the votes in 2008 and this dropped marginally to 78.7 in 2013 before sharply dropping to 66.90% in 2018.
DPT in Nganglam got a whopping 90.5 percent of the votes in 2008 dropping down to 83.2% in 2013 and then sharply falling to 64.40% in 2018.
In Mongar the story is no different for DPT as the Kengkhar-Weringla seat saw its vote share decline from 79.9 % in 2008 to 68.6 % in 2013 and then to 57.66 % in 2018.
DPT in Dramedtse-Ngatshang saw its dominating 78.6% vote in 2008 come down to 61.6% in 2013 and then to 60.6% in 2018.
However, Mongar unlike Pemagatshel is not a complete DPT show. In fact, DPT has not won back the Mongar constituency in Mongar Dzongkhag after the 2013 polls. DPT in 2008 secured an impressive 75.7 % of the votes in this constituency. It got only 47.7 % in 2013 and lost the seat to PDP and then in 2018 it got 49.48 % and lost the seat to DNT.
Dzongkhag wise DPT’s vote share in Pemagatshel declined from 88.26% in 2008 to 80.06% in 2013 and a sharp decline of 67.20% in 2018. In Mongar Dzongkhag it declined from 78.06% in 2008 to 59.3% in 2013 to 55.78% in 2018.
If there is one Dzongkhag that is the heartland of the east and best represents it, then it is Trashigang.
This Dzongkhag is not only in the largest in the country and the east with 47,614 voters, but it also offers the maximum seats among all Dzongkhags with five constituencies.
In 2008, like the rest of the 19 Dzongkhags, Trashigang gave DPT a handsome win with 74.58 % of its votes and all five constituencies.
However, since then, the people of Trashigang have demonstrated a high level of anti-incumbency and political maturity giving a chance to different parties.
In 2013 DPT lost the three seats of Thrimshing (31.9 %), Wamrong (49.4%) and Kanglung-Samkhar-Udzorong (50%) to PDP.
DPT in 2013 held on to Bartsham-Shongphu (67.4 %) and Radhi-Sakteng (55.2) only because the first seat was a ministerial one in the form of the former finance minister Wangdi Norbu and the second seat had been held by the then Speaker Jigme Tshultim.
In 2018 DPT lost Thrimshing (48.16 %) and Radhi Sakteng (48.30%) to DNT while there was a very close fight in Kanglung-Samkhar-Udzorong (50.18 %) with the seat going to DPT.
DPT won back Wamrong narrowly with 53.19 % of the votes.
The strongest constituency of DPT in Trashigang is Bartsham-Shongphu and it is revealing that DPT in 2018 won this seat by only 53.51 % of the votes which is big drop from 67.4 % in 2013 and 80.9 % in 2008.
Even in the overall vote count Trashigang Dzongkhag has seen declining support for DPT with each election. In 2008 it had 74.58 % which fell to 50.78 % in 2013 and 50.66 % in 2018.
If one looked at the allegations of regionalism, then Trashigang’s voting history runs counter to such a theory. Trashigang is the cultural and language heartland of Sharchops or the Tshangla speaking people and yet this Dzongkhag is the least reliable one for DPT and gives a fair share of seats to other parties.
Lhuentse, Samdrupjongkhar & Trashiyangtse
The three Dzongkhags of Lhuentse, Samdrupjongkhar and Trashiyangtse have six seats in total.
They share three common features. All have seen a decline in DPT’s vote share since 2008, all of them have given one or two seats to other parties in the last two general elections and DPT’s victory margins in these seats in 2018 are narrow enough to give hope to competing parties in the future.
Of the three, Lhuentse has seen the sharpest decline in support for DPT from 71.75 % in 2008 to 52.1 % in 2013 and 49.88 % in 2018.
In 2013 DPT lost its Maenbi-Tsaenkhar (45.3 %) seat to PDP and in 2018 DPT lost its stronghold of Gangzur-Minjey (46.5 %) to DNT. In 2018 DPT won back the Maenbi-Tsaenkhar seat with a narrow margin of 53.27 %.
The above shows that the two seats of Lhuentse are up for grabs for any political party in the future.
Samdrupjongkhar was an early bloomer as in 2013 itself it gave both the seats formerly held by DPT to PDP. The Dzongkhag in 2008 gave 69.35 % votes to DPT which crashed in 2013 to only 45.5 % of the votes and losses in both seats for DPT.
In 2018 DPT won back both the seats as it got an overall support of 53.13 %.
However, what is important to note is that DPT’s victory margin in both Dewathang-Gomdar (51.06 %) and Jomotshangkha-Martshala (55.20 %) came with narrow margins. This leaves open the possibility for the pendulum to swing the other way in both seats in the future.
Of the three Dzongkhags mentioned here DPT is a bit stronger in Trashiyangtse but here too some general trends apply. The Dzongkhag in 2008 gave DPT 70.8 % of the votes which dropped to 49.72 % in 2013. It was in 2013 too that DPT lost its Khamdang-Ramjar (48.21 %) seat to PDP and had a narrow escape in Bomdeling-Jamkhar with 51.24 % of the votes.
In 2018 DPT bounced back with 56.35 % support from the Dzongkhag winning both the seats.
It won Bomdeling-Jamkhar with 56.64% and Khamdang-Ramjar with 56.07 %.
However, given the manageable victory margin, past voting record and anti incumbency the seats in these two Dzongkhags can also be in contention in the future.
Bumthang and Zhemgang
As per ECB’s classification Bumthang and Zhemgang fall in the central region along with Trongsa.
However, going by the geographical location, past voting trends and also the Opposition leader elect being from Bumthang and the DPT Vice President coming from Zhemgang, the two Dzongkhags have been classified here as a part of the eastern Dzongkhags.
In 2008, Bumthang gave 67.1 % vote to DPT and both constituencies which dropped to 54.6 % in 2013 along with the loss of the Chumig-Ura (44.9 %) seat to PDP. DPT in 2013 held on to the Chhoekhor-Tang (64.3 %) seat in part due to a ministerial candidate in the form of the Agriculture Minister.
In 2018 DPT’s President and Prime Ministerial candidate was from Bumthang and so the overall Dzongkhag support went up to 59.10 %. But, here apart from the convincing win in Chhoekhor-Tang (67.9 %) DPT had a very narrow win in Chumig-Ura with only 50.31 % of the votes or a difference of 18 votes.
So while Chhoekhor-Tang will be unwinnable for other parties there is a real chance in Chumig-Ura.
Circumspect Zhemgang gave DPT only 55.2 % in 2008 along with its two seats but in 2013 this dropped to 46.15 % along with the loss of the Bardo-Trong (41.7 %) seat to PDP.
In 2013 the senior DPT leader and current Vice President nearly did not make it as he got only 50.6 % of the votes from Panbang.
In 2018 Zhemgang gave DPT a slight boost of 52.15 % of its votes and the two seats. However, the catch here is that DPT won Bardo-Trong with a very narrow margin of 50.88 % and the victory margin in Panbang of 54.16 % is also not entirely unbeatable.
Given the voting trends both the Zhemgang seats are competitive for other hardworking and smart parties.
A look at the voting trends of the eastern Dzongkhags in the last three general elections show that DPT’s greatest strength of winning election after election and seat after seat from the eastern Dzongkhags can also become its greatest weakness.
This is because even in its strongest seats its vote share is coming down with each election with a slow but sure constituency level anti-incumbency and this opens a pathway to rival political parties in future elections.
The 17 seats won by DPT this time all come from the above eight Dzongkhags. The danger is that nine of the seats in Trashigang, Lhuentse, Samdrupjongkhar, Trashiyangtse, Bumthang and Zhemgang have been won by narrow margins of 50 % to under 55 %. Many of these nine seats have gone to either PDP in 2013 or have narrowly missed going to DNT in 2018.
A strong anti-incumbency combined with strong political competition in the future could even put additional seats at risk beyond the nine seats above.
The above shows that the conventional and popular perception that the east is a sole DPT stronghold is not necessarily true and a close look at the numbers and trends will show a lot of chinks in this argument.
However, it will be foolhardy for any political party or candidate to assume that beating DPT in the east will be a cakewalk in the next general elections.
DPT is still the strongest political party in eastern Bhutan and by far its first party of choice. This was amply clear when 64.95% of DPT’s 90,020 votes in the 2018 primary round came from these eight Dzongkhags- knocking out PDP.
The lessons to be learnt here are that DPT is strong but not invincible in the east, that its overall support is slipping with each general election and that elections contests are getting and will get more competitive in the east in the near future.
On the allegation of regionalism, it is not true that people in the east are voting mainly on ethnic or identity lines nor is the opposite true that there are no identity issues involved at all.
There are also important variables like the performance of the incumbent candidate, performance of the party, leadership of the party president, national events and other factors that will also influence results in the east.
In the end, any political party willing to do the hard work in the east and work down to the grassroots level can spring a surprise there. The east is neither a uniform political entity nor a uniform identity but it has its own variations, its own pace and its own dynamics.