On 11th December 2023, an online news platform based in India in an article with the headline ‘Suspicions Loom Over Bhutan’s Chief Election Body,’ alleged that political parties are doubting the impartiality of the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB).
It said, “Central to their concerns are alleged “oversights” by the ECB that have ended up favouring the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), a party known for its alignment with India’s strategic interests.”
The article which was also shared online made various direct and indirect accusations and it claims to have talked to some anonymous candidates in Bhutan.
The news platform also makes accusations over the disqualification of the Sombaykha candidate of Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP) and how it had only 46 candidates for the general election.
The article did not have any reaction from the ECB or the two accused parties of PDP and BTP.
This paper looked into the serious allegations made in the online outlet by talking to ECB and all five political parties.
Candidate replacement of Ugyentse-Yoeseltse constituency
The main allegation by the online outlet is that political parties were required to submit their Letter of Intent (LoI) to the ECB by 5 pm on Nov. 4, 2023 along with a list of 47 candidates.
It says PDP submitted nominations for 47 candidates, but one of their representatives for the Ugyentse-Yoeseltse constituency in Samtse district (Mani Kumar Pradhan) was found ineligible due to not meeting the age criteria, which is below 65 years.
It says, “This means the PDP didn’t have all 47 candidates meeting the criteria. On Nov. 5, the day after the last date for submitting the list, the PDP nominated Dimple Thapa as a replacement and filed her nomination. Further, Thapa received the required Audit Clearance and No Objection Certificate from the police on Nov. 6, two days after the list of candidates was to be submitted.”
The article further said, “The four other parties that participated in the primaries lodged complaints with the ECB regarding this issue. However, the ECB chose not to respond to these grievances, the sources said.”
The article is correct in saying that Mani Kumar was found to be found above the age of 65 and hence disqualified on 5th November on the date of scrutiny of Letter of Intent and so Dimple Thapa was the replacement and she submitted her documents by 6th November.
However, it is incorrect that the four other parties lodged complaints with the ECB on this issue and that the ECB chose not to respond to these grievances.
ECB says things done by the book
This paper talked to the ECB and all the five General Secretaries of the five parties Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), Druk Thuendrel Tshogpa (DTT), Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), BTP and PDP and all of them said that none of the parties filed a complaint on the issue.
The ECB Director of the Secretariat Phub Dorji said a PDP candidate was found to be over the age limit and Dimple Thapa replaced him well within the law and time.
The ECB Director said that while 4th November is the last date to submit the LoI it is not the date of scrutiny which is on 5th November and at that time the documents and candidates are scrutinized and parties are given a chance to correct mistakes. So, time is given till the 6th November to resubmit mistaken documents or fix issues with candidates.
This is because 6th November is the last date of withdrawal of a party from the race.
The ECB Director also said that the list of candidates collected from the parties in the Primary round are ‘Tentative candidates” which means parties can withdraw and change them before giving the final list of candidates to the Returning Officers in the general round.
The article said in the 2013 general election, the ECB set a precedent by disqualifying the Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP) for not having two candidates from Gasa.
Here the ECB Director said that what happened to BKP cannot be compared because when it submitted the candidate list the two candidates were not there from Gasa at all which is why it was disqualified.
The ECB Director said that what happened with Dimple Thapa was well within the election laws and if it was not then the other parties would have filed formal complaints and would not have kept the ECB at peace.
He said that no one from the online publication contacted him to verify their information.
5 parties say no complaint launched and ECB explanation accepted
The DNT General Secretary Phub said the four parties did not lodge any complaint with the ECB but when the four party General Secretaries met with the ECB they verbally and informally sought the clarification of the ECB.
“The ECB clarified how it happened and we were convinced by the Commission’s clarification. The candidates in the primary round are tentative and so the initial candidate was changed to Dimple Thapa with all the documents and so the rules were not changed,” added Phurba.
He said the 2013 comparison to BKP’s disqualification does not apply as BKP did not have two candidates at all. “I am convinced by the ECB’s explanation.”
The DTT GS Kuenga Namgay said there was an informal verbal discussion and the four parties accepted the ECB explanation.
The DPT GS Sonam Tashi said the GS of the parties actually went to see the ECB not to complain but to seek clarification on why so many documents were being asked for submission from candidates when the Election Act also does not specify it and the actual candidate scrutiny is only in the final round.
It was in the context of this discussion that the name of Dimple Thapa came up and the ECB gave its explanation which was accepted as the primary round only has tentative candidates.
Sonam said the issue was more on the excessive asking of documents whereby some parties even lost potential candidates who did not have certain documents ready in a short time frame of a few days.
The BTP GS Tshering Dorji also said that the main issue was that the candidates had been asked to submit documents like qualification endorsement, audit clearance and NOC but the Act does not ask for it. He said they asked how Dimple Thapa could submit these documents after 4th December and the ECB explained to them.
He said there was no complaint and the main issue is more on why tentative candidates are asked to submit such documents which is especially difficult as a new party.
The PDP GS Kuenga Tashi said that neither the PDP candidate nor the party were aware that their candidate had exceeded the 65-year age limit and once they got to know it they put in place a replacement candidate with all the necessary documents by the last date of withdrawal of the party date on 6 November.
Candidate replacement in Sombaykha
The online platform then said the ECB disqualified a BTP candidate from the Sombaykha constituency, days after the primary round, citing a violation of Section 179 C of the Election Act of Bhutan.
It said this means even the second party eligible for the main general election had only 46 eligible candidates.
The BTP’s candidate was disqualified as the ECB found out later through official sources that the Bar Council has cancelled his bar license. This had been missed in the primary round scrutiny as the candidate had fulfilled all other requirements.
Here again, the ECB Director pointed out that the primary round is for tentative candidates and there is no detailed documents and scrutiny like in the general round.
Here he said that parties can change candidates if they are disqualified. BTP got a DPT candidate to replace the disqualified candidate.
In fact, in the 2013 general election round the DPT candidate for Radhi-Sakteng was disqualified for failing to get the Security Clearance Certificate and even his back up candidate for the seat from DPT was also disqualified for not being a party member.
It was then that the Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT) party gave its candidate to DPT.
In the same 2013 polls in the general round PDP’s Nanong-Shumar constituency candidate was also disqualified and here again PDP had to take a candidate from DCT.
The BTP GS said that once they got a letter disqualifying their Sombaykha candidate they followed the due process as laid down by the ECB to get a replacement candidate from DPT.
The article says that during the 2013-18 tenure PDP maintained the status quo in Bhutan’s Foreign Policy and says that PDP’s landslide victory in the runoff has apparently met with favour in Indian strategic circles quoting an Editorial by an Indian newspaper.
The article fails to appreciate that whatever the change in elected government in Bhutan there is no major change in the foreign policy. The article also quotes the Editorial that erroneously claims that a PDP win ‘would give India the opportunity to truly help Bhutan rebuild its economy.’
The fact is that irrespective of whichever government comes to power, India will extend assistance at a government to government level as has been the case in the past.
The article says that the ‘suspicion over the ECB’s neutrality, due to its alleged lapses in the context of the current geopolitical dynamics, might be adverse for both countries’.
However, again in the absence of complaints by political parties and their acceptance of the results of the primary round it is difficult to see how this will be a factor foreign policy wise when it is not even a domestic political issue.