Phub Wangdi pursuing his studies in Australia gives his take on Bhutanese Democracy so far
As the 2013 elections draw near, the country is embroiled in a tumultuous wave of gossip and speculation about everything from ‘scams’ to corruption to political gamesmanship and horse-trading. A sense of enthusiasm and edginess has gripped us, as people gear up for another landmark moment in our country, and certainly another milestone in Bhutan’s tryst with democracy.
Bhutan has been blessed with visionary monarchs who have always selflessly served the interest of the country. Empowered with the wisdom of Jambayang, the compassion of Chenrigzee and the fortitude of Chanadorji, our Kings have forged the Modern Bhutanese Nation State, our country, as we know it today. Each King’s reign is well defined in the form and shape that the Bhutanese Nation State has come to take. They can be seen in our cultural identity, political institutions, and society at large but the greatest profundity of our Monarch is witnessed in the democratic process, which will invariably define our future.
As I write this paper I do so with utmost obeisance to our Triple Gem (King, Country and People). For the benefit of the reader I will only highlight three areas of Bhutan’s democracy: Foundation, Results and Vision. Here some of my concerns will be highlighted, but only briefly, as my doubts are personal and thus could be presumptuous. I would rather that every reader sit back and to think about the issues I highlight on your own.
On 24 March of 2008, the country woke up to a new political system. Elections were finally over. The euphoria of national achievement was undoubtedly felt by all. Finally after decades of preparation democracy was now consummated.
Everyone will always remember the first sitting of parliament when our king gave an impassionate and most profound address to the new politicians. His Majesty, the first King of democratic Bhutan’s said, “The highest achievement of 100 years of Monarchy has been the constant nurturing of Democracy. This has culminated today with the first sitting of Parliament and the start of democracy, whereby my father the Fourth Druk Gyalpo and I, hereby return to the people the powers that have been vested in our kings by our forefathers a 100 years ago. We do so with absolute faith and confidence, offer our complete support and our prayers for the success of democracy.”
At that point everything was perfect. But in the backdrop of this success, there was one glitch in the wonderful growth of Bhutan into a democracy. The Opposition stood with only 2 seats in Parliament although 33% of the electorate voted in its support. Nevertheless, people were optimistic and believed in the efficacies of the new political system and the Bhutanese values of cooperation, respect for others and placing the interest of others and the nation above one’s own.
It is important to reflect upon how democracy has evolved since then and to ask ourselves whether democracy in Bhutan has been in keeping with our Monarchs vision of a successful and good democracy. In fact we should ask ourselves, has democracy been nurtured or has politics overtaken democracy and everything else?
The reader will be fully aware of the introduction of the Tshogdu during the Third King’s reign followed by His Majesty the Fourth King who, over time, systematically devolved powers to lay the foundation of Democracy. Namely, the establishment of GYT, DYT, devolution of executive powers in 1998/2002 and so on. This approach towards Democracy is unprecedented in world history and actually merits serious academic study for political scientists. In the last four decades, the Kings forged a strong political, social and economic framework with Health and Education being the primary focus of socio-economic development. This, as I understand it, was reinforced with a tactful foreign policy that shielded Bhutan from the uncertainty of the times. Strategic maneuvering brought strong relations with India, which resulted in economic success and prosperity for the people. Such conditions of socio-economic progress strengthened Bhutan’s imminent move towards democracy.
Democracy in Bhutan was introduced thoughtfully. The leadership prepared the entire nation for Democratic Institutions, Ideals and Practices, to become, a part of the modern Nation State. It was introduced in a systematic and well-calibrated manner with near surgical precision while constantly strengthening the instruments that would promote Good Governance. Such favorable conditions were not experienced by all emerging democracies around the world. Bhutan had the luxury of Democracy being set up in this manner. Both the moral foundation and democratic institutions were synthesized to accord stability, legitimacy and vision to Bhutan’s path to Democracy.
Now let’s take a deeper look into the Bhutanese cultural context and explore whether Bhutan offers the cultural and social intricacies needed for the sustenance of a democratic system. Democracy in the Western sense is new to Bhutan. Even the word Democracy was translated into Dzongkha as Mangtshoi Lamlu as recently as 10 years ago. Today this word is widely used and understood by people across the country.
Historically the Bhutanese polity was based on the ideals of communalism and strong family ties. Buddhist values and etiquette practiced by the monks also had a great influence on the way people organized themselves and distributed labor. Centuries of isolation as independent village settlements and generations of self-governance led to the unique consultative process of Bhutanese life.
It was a way of governance where decisions on all matters invariably ended with friendships, ties, camaraderie and the cooperative spirit intact. The smallness of the villages and settlements made governance a community affair. The lack of resources made hard choices necessary. The fact that survival in rural life depended on cooperation whether in building or planting or harvesting, made consensus vital. Bhutan is a larger representation of its many rural settlements. Harmony among its people was paramount.
The Bhutanese society possessed remarkable cohesion, community vitality and consensus decision-making, which were deeply rooted in the people’s belief system and cultural ethos. This is most evident in the manner Monarchy was established in 1907. The introduction of democracy was a national goal and a noble objective that Bhutan as a nation assumed. People understood the gravity of this task and, inspired by the leadership, each and every citizen saw it as their sacred duty to play a part in what was to be a historic endeavor.
Bhutan’s first step towards democracy was undoubtedly successful. The foundation was evidently strong and had the right social nuances for democracy’s long-term future. However the last four years has been a tremendous learning curve for the Bhutanese. The importance of form and function working together was not well understood during the first years.
Glaring mistakes were made and poor decisions were taken. In summary, some of the decisions of the government, the handling of national affairs and of course the endless controversies- all have undermined democracy, challenged people’s confidence and set bad precedents. Moreover these could have long-term implications.
The new politicians immediately after taking on their office started discussing salary, perks and privileges and their Kabneys and Patangs. It didn’t end there; soon they were ordering their government funded luxury SUVs. Ministers moved into their mansions where their houses are twice the size of the wealthiest people residing in Thimphu and many times more luxurious and lavish with imported furnishing and world-class décor. What message did that send to the people? MPs made demands for special number plates to be placed on their cars for privileges and later they settled for stickers for themselves and their families, which is an eyesore to this day. Within that very year, politicians did not hesitate to demand obeisance from the general public and from senior public officials. They made it very clear that they have to be treated in accordance to their position. They willingly flaunted their electoral victory and often misused it to justify their wrongdoings. They would be heard saying, “We are the government, we have all the powers, we represent the will of the people, we have arrived and anyone who opposes us is going against democracy.”
Now one might question the writer’s intent but I have included what people talk in bars, along the streets, the privacy of their homes and in offices because that is exactly what people are talking about and it’s important. It’s important not to ignore them. It’s important that people remain ever more focused and committed to the goal of having a strong yet reliable democratic system with leaders who possess a great degree of competence and integrity.