In the last five years some physical infrastructure, especially in the rural areas has been strengthened but the same cannot be said for the democratic fabric in Bhutan.
Through a combination of factors Bhutanese democracy has now become ‘too unique’ to be called a normal democracy, and rather is headed on the path of an Autocracy.
Most dictionaries define Autocracy as a form of government where too much political power is concentrated in one person, in which one person has unlimited power over others, or in which the ruler does not take into account others wishes and opinions. Bhutan’s current system of governance meets all these conditions.
Historically, starting from the time of the Zhabdrung, Bhutan has either been ruled by a strong central authority or by local feudal lords in their respective valleys. Therefore, culturally generations of Bhutanese until recently have been accustomed to being ruled by a strong ruler that enjoys absolute power.
The birth of the Monarchy from 1907 onwards gave rise to the concept of an Enlightened Monarchy which not only united and developed the country, but also for the first time in Bhutanese history gave this power back to the people in stages with the last stage being in March 2008 when Bhutan’s first democratic government was elected.
However, starting from even as early as 2008 instead of using this new space voluntarily vacated by our Kings for strengthening democracy, the ruling government lead by the Prime Minister and the older ministers have instead installed an Autocracy over which they reign supreme.
Instead of a fresh start the current regime using a combination of fear tactics, intimidation, people’s inbuilt cultural conditioning, undermining of democratic institutions, ad-hoc decisions and dictatorial governance style, has taken Bhutan back to the past.
In form and structure Bhutan can be called a functioning democracy with elections, elected representatives and democratic institutions but in terms of practice Bhutan is getting farther away from becoming a genuine democracy.
The joke is on democracy as a group of older ministers in a new system has ensured that the old ways are perpetuated in the new system. The new and younger ministers have also followed suit in their senior colleague’s path.
From the first year itself the government started establishing an Iron grip over various government organizations, individuals and institutions like the DHI, REC, Secretaries, senior civil servants, RCSC, democratic bodies, state owned broadcaster and etc. either by changing the laws or replacing and transferring key people.
At the time, the government through skillful public relations and deft media handling gave the impression that this was all being to bring stubborn institutions and individuals stuck in the past, in line with the new democratic spirit.
The reality, as we now know in the fifth year of democracy was that it was nothing more than a power struggle to control these institutions and individuals, not for the sake of democratic governance but for more power and control. For example some big economic projects that are being given to a connected few use these same structures.
The ruling party itself does not practice the concept of internal party democracy as evinced in the DPT party meetings, where the scene is more akin to a group of young students listening to a strict principal. Many MPs have very less say within their own party. In some ways the ruling party has elevated its Party President to the position of a Mini-monarch who cannot be questioned and all his directions have to be blindly obeyed.
This along with the lack of alternative leaders most of whom are too scared to speak their minds even within the DPT, a weak opposition, the strong personality of the PM and an impressionable media has led to the rise of the personality cult of the Prime Minister.
Statements like, ‘He is the only one fit to lead the country,’ or ‘there is no one else,’ etc all come from this mass personality cult where the PM even assumes superhuman qualities ignoring his obvious human flaws.
The autocratic government has taken on a ‘super-paternal’ role as the one who will tell everyone else what to eat, drink, smoke, think, when to walk and how to happy.
The very reason why the Fourth King gave democracy was to avoid this kind of centralized and autocratic leadership, but ironically Bhutanese democracy is being undermined by this very kind of leadership that deals only in absolutes, be it absolute power, absolute control or absolute victory.
Autocracy and the complete power that comes with it inevitably gives rise to an Oligarchy and Institutionalized Corruption.
This can be seen in the numerous corruption cases where the leadership has shown itself to be unaccountable to the masses and instead will do everything to help’s its own, even by breaking laws in broad daylight.
The numerous controversial issues like Education City and Mines and also blatant corruption issues like Trowa, Denchi compensation, Chinese City buses, Gyelpozhing, and other projects indicate the rise of an Oligarchy of well connected individuals and families protected and served by this autocracy.
In the absence of a strong opposition and civil society the role of constitutional bodies in checking this autocracy is all the more important. However, the autocracy has taken on the ACC, ECB, Judiciary and others and managed to throw a spanner in their works in different ways.
The autocratic system has also successfully subverted the senior levels of the civil service by rewarding the loyal and the connected with plum promotions and postings, while punishing those who do not fall in line.
For the autocratic power structure the biggest obstacle is a vocal, diverse and critical media. The government using a system of economic sanctions targeted specifically this paper to send a message to all others on the consequences of criticizing the government. The fact that the government still continues with the sanctions even after being publicly exposed is additional proof of its autocratic behavior.
This autocratic government did not even spare the institution of the Monarchy. In a highly dubious and in transparent way the government introduced a new Land Bill that would give Land Kidu powers to the cabinet and remove the Gyalpoi Zimpon along with other government secretaries from the National Land Commission (NLC)in favor of ministers. This legislation was only postponed when there was a public outcry and it was pointed out that it would be unconstitutional.
Another autocratic example of this government was the stubborn refusal of the government to focus on serious domestic economic problems and instead focus on promoting GNH.
This autocratic machinery repeatedly makes use of fear to control people and attack its opponents.
As the very basis of autocracy is based on the suppression of diverging opinions, government critics are attacked using lies, untruths, conspiracy theories and half-baked information. The government has a propaganda machine for this that takes advantage of vulnerable, sycophantic, gullible and unprofessional elements in the media.
For the sake of the nation’s very future and in the interest of growing a healthy democracy Bhutan cannot mistake autocratic leadership for stability or good leadership. These is because autocracy in Bhutan is visibly giving rise to Oligarchy, institutionalized Corruption, poor governance, economic problems, the subversion of press freedom, loss of individual rights and ultimately the subversion of our young democracy. Far from giving stability it encourages instability and disharmony.
In the international context autocracy and its accompanying features like the political leadership cult have gone horribly wrong for the people as seen in the examples of Maoism, Stalinism, King Jong IL, Mubarak, Gaddafi and etc.
“In order to get power and retain it, it is necessary to love power; but love of power is not connected with goodness but with qualities that are the opposite of goodness, such as pride, cunning and cruelty”
Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoi