As the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) gears toward the 2013 elections stepping-up on electoral education and deploying returning officers as far as New York, the general atmosphere for the sphere of politicos remains apprehensive, especially about voter-turnout.
Talks doing the round in the circle of political enthusiasts is that, polling stations will be doubled in the capital – in all places like Thimphu, Motithang, Changangkha, Dechencholing, Babesa and many others, so that people can vote right outside their doorsteps, at full convenience.
As the 2013 elections inches closer, a voter turnout discussion becomes very inevitable.
Low voter turnout introduces concerns because voters are not always a genuine sample of the population. The number of non-voters is often greater than the margin of victory between the top candidates, suggesting that increasing mobilization could change electoral outcomes.
“Voter education and information program will help turnout. Media can motivate them as well. Parties, candidates and supporters can help. Election campaign will make a big difference,” said Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), Dasho Kunzang Wangdi.
The 2008 voter turnout as interpreted by a political analyst was mainly because people thought voting was something ‘compulsory’.
On similar lines of contemplation, the Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT) president Lily Wangchuk, suggested that ‘voting be made compulsory’ which she says might not happen overnight but can be done and should be deliberated in the parliament.
“The issue with making it a compulsion to vote is anti-thetical,” said Lily Wangchhuk.
Looking at socio-economic factors, the larger sement of society voting are civil servants. Most of the educated voters say that they will not be voting in 2013, so if right ‘civic education’ is instilled in them as well, the informed choice of choosing candidates will be better.
“No voters will have to walk more than three hours to the polling stations,” said the Election Commissioner in an earlier interview to this paper.
Low turnout can also be attributed to arrays of factors such as transportation, economic, demographic, technological and institutional factors – there is also no denying that ‘free to vote’ and not as a compulsion might as well hinder turnout as even country like Australia has made it ‘compulsory to vote’.
“ECB should make it as ‘convenient’ as possible, more polling stations and most are hand-to-mouth earners, so three times voting is not a joke if one has to make a three day journey,” said a media expert.
He also added that voting will be during the monsoon, so this factor as well should be taken into account.
The government will propose to ECB for six new polling stations in the urban areas so that people working away from home can vote at their convenience right at their doorsteps, said a top-level source in the government.
One problem in the 2008 elections was ‘negative voting’ pointed out political analysts while in 2013 elections, there are ‘more choices, more political choices’ remarked the Opposition Leader, Tshering Tobgay, on his comment about more political parties getting registered with ECB.
The flipside is that the ‘a poll with very low turnout may not be an accurate reflection of the will of the people’ said a senior civil servant in foreign ministry.
Another way to increase turnout is “through repeated public service announcements appealing to the electorate’s patriotic duty in a country where democracy is just five years old,” said Nathaniel Johnson, Editor, AFP News.
More importantly, he thinks that “people are more likely to turn out if they have been shown that they have a real stake in the outcome of the vote, that the election has the potential to change their lives for the better”.
He also reminded that informing voters of what the consequences of the election is the responsibility of the media.
It becomes the job of the media for wide dissemination of electoral processes and education, Lily Wangchuk said.
She believes that civic education could as well erase fragmentation of family lines while voting and advocate on importance of voting.
On similar lines, News Editor of Kuensel, Samten Wangchuk said that ‘doing articles’ is one way media can help for better turnout.
Another concern that Lily Wangchuk raised was that the postal ballot voting’s deadlines should be extended as postal ballot is one of the major factors that matters most in elections.
“There is only 14 days to go for postal voters,” said Lily Wangchuk where people live away from the country, it might take time for them.
As a general agreement that strengthening democratic institutions will gain better voter turnout, Sonam Tobgay, BKP President said that the ‘democratic institutions should be very impartial in disseminating information and it will encourage not only voting but pluralism as well’.
Other factors he said were ‘convenience of polling stations’.
About the huge number of postal ballots rejected in 2008 for filling errors and wrong addresses, Editor Samten Wangchuk was of the opinion that “ECB is bit stringent about it when Bhutanese people are heedless to details and they are also very laid-back”.