The 2008 General Elections, though a monumental step taken in Bhutan’s transition to democracy, also showed an ugly side as many close knit families and communities were divided on party lines.
Over the last five years, the forgiving nature of most Bhutanese, and most importantly- the unifying institution of the Monarchy brought the Bhutanese society back together as one nation under one King.
However, after the 2013 primary round of election results were announced- an entirely different threat of regionalism is emerging. Such concerns are currently restricted to a few social media discussions and in some closed door meetings, but if this trend is not explained and checked at an early stage- it could pose bigger problems for the nation.
The basic premise on some of the misleading discussions is of the wins by the parties, like DPT which won with a huge margin in the east, and is falsely being portrayed as an eastern Bhutan party supported by central Bhutan. And PDP is also misleadingly being portrayed as a western Bhutan party supported by the south.
The flawed conclusion is drawn from a cursory look at the electoral map of Bhutan, and the assumption that voters voted on regional lines.
Nothing could be further from the truth as there are several reasons as to why the results have come out the way it did. It has more to do with the socio-economic and political factors than any theorized case of regional loyalties.
The first simple truth is that all parties have campaigned on ideologies and campaign promises that had no hint of regionalism in them. In fact, many parties were criticized for sounding too familiar to one another. This fact can be further borne out by comparing the manifestos of all four political parties. All parties also had a mix of candidates from all regions of Bhutan.
While it is true that some politicians used regional languages to address crowds- the intent was more to communicate campaign pledges better and at times entertain an easily distracted audience. Even politicians who were not as linguistically gifted- had got in their translators.
A closer look at the results will show that people in the west and east have voted in a mixed manner.
DPT did well in typically western areas like Thimphu and upper Paro. In the East, despite of there being four parties, PDP has secured better results than it did in 2008. In fact, in dzongkhags like Lhuntse, Trashigang, Zhemgang, and Samdrup Jongkhar – the combined votes garnered by PDP, DNT and DCT are more than the total DPT votes.
In central Bhutan, PDP is in a position to take away a seat or two from DPT if votes from DNT and DCT go the PDP way.
Southern Bhutan is balanced between both PDP and DPT with PDP having only a slight edge if DNT and DCT votes go its way.
Coming to specific issues, there are more practical reasons why DPT won big in the east and PDP did well in the west.
Even before the 2008 results were declared – a gigantic Nu 147 bn draft 10th Five Year Plan (FYP) had already been drawn up with a lot of focus in backward rural areas.
The main achievement of the incumbent DPT government is that after coming to power, it modified the 10th FYP in places by adding focus, and tightened deadlines and targets, and then went all out in implementing it.
The minimum programs like farm roads, electricity, water, and mobile connection had a much bigger impact in the comparatively backward dzongkhags in the east.
The DPT leadership and its political machinery could effectively take the credit for the all development works, and even promised more if it comes back to power. This is evident in many rural eastern voters saying that they voted for DPT because they were told that DPT would come back and complete or take on new activities. In short, voters in the east rewarded DPT for its developmental activities.
There is no doubt that issues like economic problems, corruption, governance, etc. would have played a role in the elections in the east- otherwise DPT’s margin of victory could have been even bigger. It is just that development works overshadowed the other issues to sail them through the primary round of elections.
A similar phenomenon seems to have had an effect in the central districts, especially with a strong DPT candidate in the form of the former agriculture minister from Bumthang.
Western Bhutan, which is comparatively better developed than the rest of Bhutan, did not feel a big impact of the 10th FYP. It felt more acutely on the issue of unfulfilled promises. Being more closely linked to major urban areas, the voters in the capital were also more aware on issues like Rupee crisis, credit crunch, corruption, authoritarian style of governance, etc.
Traditionally, the west has always been more politically aware and balanced- as visible even in 2008 where it gave Bhutan the Opposition Leader, and also a comparatively lower margins of victory for DPT compared to the rest of the nation. During the NC elections, even a popular candidate like Kaka Tshering from Paro could just about scrape though. Even DPT’s Thimphu seats are not completely safe- given that the combined PDP and DNT votes are much more than the DPT votes despite having the prominent DPT candidates.
Western Bhutan, in keeping with its own socio-economic nature, higher level of exposure and more balanced political traditions decided that the time for change has come. Here too, votes were cast entirely on the socio-economic and political factors.
A national politician worth its salt knows that voters in southern Bhutan are among one of the most politically aware voters in Bhutan. It also does not help that during the midterm review – a major southern dzongkhag like Samtse performed the worst, in terms of implementation of developmental works. Southern dzongkhags being located close to the border would have also felt acutely the Rupee crisis. The south due to its geographic location and more active political culture seem to be more aware of issues like economic problems, corruption, etc. What will also hurt DPT is that despite promises and raised hopes, it has failed to resolve the sensitive census issue in the south.
Apart from western Bhutan, PDP has made major inroads into the south, and if a portion of DNT and DCT votes go to PDP, then PDP could effectively sweep the entire south in the general round of elections. It is important to note that two regionally distinct voters embodied in the western and southern voters have voted in a similar manner- not on regional lines but based on issues that affect them.
It is interesting to note that in areas where PDP had stronger candidates like in the west and south -it either did well or stood a respectable second. Also PDP had relatively weaker candidates in the east.
DPT, by comparison, not only had stronger candidates, but also a far better organized and stronger party structure in the east.
In an ultimate analysis, voters across Bhutan -irrespective of their regional make up voted based on issues that they felt were most important to them. There is no evidence to suggest that people have voted based on any kind of regional loyalties.
However, the misunderstood talk of regionalism brought about in the heat of the political race is one of the many reasons why the institution of Monarchy is all the more important to us today. Despite different political loyalties, we are, first and foremost, Bhutanese citizens united under the leadership of His Majesty the King. Also, more than politicians and political parties, we owe our national allegiance to the Tsa-Wa-Sum of King, Country, and People. It is also important to remember that elections will come and go, politicians and political parties of all types will rise and fall, but the Kingdom of Bhutan will remain forever.
“The Destiny of Man is to unite, not to divide. If you keep on dividing you end up as a collection of monkeys throwing nuts at each other out of separate trees.”