Debate formats will also change and the budget will be increased for parties and candidates
The National Assembly and the current government will finish its five-year term by 1st August 2018. This is because the house had its first sitting and election of the Speaker on 2nd August 2013.
The entire NA election period will be at or under 90 days. This is because as per the Election Act 2008, the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) has to insure that a dissolved NA is reconstituted within 90 days.
As per the Constitution, a Royal Decree from His Majesty The King will see the formal notification of the election period along with the poll dates. The election period will start from the day of the Royal Decree.
The polling date for the Primary round will be within 30 days from the Royal Decree. The ECB notification will announce the last date of making nominations to the General Elections within 30 days of the declaration of the primary round results.
The final general election poll day should be completed at or before the 90-days period. The ECB has a degree of flexibility within the 90 days but cannot exceed it.
The 2018 National Assembly primary and general election rounds will see improvements by the ECB to ensure higher voter turnout by increasing the numbers and getting better locations for postal facilitation booths for postal ballots and polling stations for poll day.
Mobile polling booths are also being considered to get to remote rural areas and the disabled.
Changes can also be expected in the television debate format for both the Primary and General rounds to make them more substantive.
In line with the NC elections parties and individual candidates can see an increase in the election funds allocated to them.
Postal facilitation booths
The 2018 National Council election witnessed a record high voter turnout in large part due to the 69 postal facilitation booths set up across 20 Dzongkhags.
People could go cast their postal ballots at these booths almost like paper ballots, instead of following the much more cumbersome process of sending it by post.
It allowed a lot of people to vote, who in the past stayed away and as a result, for the first time, pushed male voter participation higher than women.
The 2018 NA elections, also for the first time, will also see the deployment of the postal facilitation booths in 20 Dzongkhags.
Though an increase is expected in the numbers of booths there will not be much net change as ECB will looking at combing existing booths for better efficiency.
ECB Commissioner Deki Pema said that election officers from 20 Dzongkhags are coming up with recommendations to open new postal facilitation booths and at the same time combine some of them.
The Commissioner said that the ECB would like to encourage those eligible to register for the postal facilitation booths and postal ballots. She said that ECB is already accepting registration and changes.
She that ECB is also accepting changes like people switching from postal ballots via post to postal facilitation booths and vice versa.
The ECB, however, is encouraging voters to go for the postal facilitation booth due to the ease with the facility and the much lower chances of errors.
Section 331 of the Election Act specifies that those eligible for postal ballots are civil servants, armed forces, people on special government duty, diplomats and their dependents, students and trainees and any other group specified by the ECB.
The ECB so far has allowed overseas Bhutanese, the Hotel Association and Tour Operators associations members postal ballots due to their nature of work.
Commissioner Deki Pema said ECB would even consider media houses and other cases based on a letter by the MD or the head of the organization stating valid reasons. Once approved by the ECB, a form is given for the employees to fill up.
She called on people to register ahead of the elections for postal ballots or to make any changes.
The Postal Ballot Rules and Regulations of the ECB says that postal ballot registration will be done in the pre-election period, and once elections are called it will happen only on a case by case basis with the absolute last day being the last date for the withdrawal of candidates.
Given the turnout in the NC elections the ECB is expecting a higher postal ballot registration in the 2018 NA polls.
The postal facilitation booth will be opened for three days day seven, day six and day five before the poll day.
More and mobile Polling Stations
The ECB is also looking at both increasing and rationalizing the number of polling stations to enable people to vote.
“Our election officers have observed certain areas where there is always lower voter participation due to factors like remoteness and distance of a certain village from the polling station,” said Commissioner Deki Pema.
She said that they would look at increasing, relocating and combining polling stations to make it easier for voters.
The ECB is also looking at mobile polling booths for particularly remote areas where a small team can go to a village or community to allow voters including the old and the infirm to vote.
ECB has also noted that certain polling stations with a low number of voters may not require as much manpower and equipment to be deployed which can be better utilized in crowded polling stations with high number of voters and long lines.
Commissioner Deki said that the recent NC elections has provided valuable insight and feedback for the upcoming NA polls.
The election officers from the 20 Dzongkhags will be giving their various recommendations after an ongoing week long meeting.
To make it easier the ECB will accept the NC 2018 VPIC cards for voting in the NA elections.
Changed Debate format
The NA primary round will see two sets of debates between the political parties, usually between the Presidents first followed by the Vice Presidents.
Then in the general elections there will be 47 common forum debates in the 47 constituencies.
The ECB is considering changes in the format of both the above debates with the aim of making it more substantive and issue focused.
A clue to this can be seen from the changed debate format in the NC elections in 2018.
Earlier in the 2008 and 2013 NC and NA polls the candidates would present an opening statement each preceded by a round of back and forth pointed questions against the opponent of their choice. This was followed by a closing statement each.
In the NC 2018 elections the format was changed with an opening statement each followed by a question from the BBS moderator based on the opening statements.
Then this was followed by one national level question and Dzongkhag level question for each candidate from a question bank randomly selected by the candidates from a lucky dip.
The question bank was prepared on topical national and Dzongkhag level issues by the ECB and other stakeholders.
Finally, another lucky dip is help where the candidates get the name of a rival candidate to whom they can ask their own question.
This is followed by a concluding statement of each candidate.
A similar format is being considered for the 2018 NA debates with the main focus being on the manifestos and pledges of the candidates’ parties and substantive issues relevant to the nation.
This may mean and end to the earlier more acrimonious debates which saw more political bickering and less debates on substantive issues. The debate format will explore how aware and prepared the candidates are.
The NA candidates like their NC counterparts will receive an increase in the election budget up from 130,000 in 2013 to now 150,000.
The party, if they have the funds, can match this amount leading to an increased maximum election campaign ceiling amount of Nu 300,000 per constituency. The money has to be accounted and spent for specific campaign purposes.
The ECB will have a separate sponsorship budget for authorized media advertisements, printing of manifestos etc. for each party and candidate.