Horse trading and coalitions, a bad idea for the country’s democratic culture

The Lyonchhen and the Cabinet ministers with the Bhutanese Media after the last Meet the Press session on Thursday, 18 April
The Lyonchhen and the Cabinet ministers with the Bhutanese Media after the last Meet the Press session on Thursday, 18 April

The prevalence of a loophole in the law which does not prohibit candidates of parties from switching to another after the primary rounds may very well give rise to practices called horse-trading and coalition in political lingo to be very visibly demonstrated by parties and individuals after the primary elections.

With five in the 2013 arena, signs and symptoms warming up to the big National Assembly elections have early on hinted, suggested and in some areas even largely confirmed the imminent possibility of horse-trading and subtle forms of coalitions.

In all this Lyonchhen Jigme Y. Thinley said the way he sees it, it is about one party separating into several entities that are able to access state funding or among other forms of funding to the tune of Nu 130,000 per individual to garner support of voters to edge out his/her competition in the primary rounds, and broaden support bases to have advantage in the general elections.

Questioning the morality and basis of such a development if it were to occur the Lyonchhen said when the ECB or the state has funded entities or candidates to join separate parties following different ideologies, principles, programs and so on, should such parties or individuals not be penalized, if they abandon their parties for whatever reasons and join a winning army as mercenaries.

“Should they be made to refund, perhaps to begin with, what they received from the ECB in the primary elections,” Lyonchhen asked. “Or should there be some form of penalty or fine imposed. Since the law does not really prohibit one person from joining another party, should the ECB fix a ceiling or percentage or number of candidates that a party cannot exceed in accepting from another party.”

The Lyonchhen said such party-hopping and horse trading would amount to cheating the state and parties should risk being expelled.

The Constitution of Bhutan promotes a multi-party system but it discourages formation of coalition, either in the formation of the government or in the formation of the opposition.

“This provision has been made not ‘unintentionally’ with a purpose, because in many young democracies or countries, coalitions have contributed to instability and frequent changes of government etc. And that is why, as we the Bhutanese have enjoyed so much peace, stability under the rule of our successive monarchs, if democracy brought about instability, and one way of bringing instability is encouragement of coalitions,” the economic affairs (MoEA) minister Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk said.

“This would not be a good beginning for democracy in the country. Our constitution is very clear, the purpose is not to have coalitions, either in the governance or the opposition.”

He said we have provided for a primary round and then a general election to avoid coalitions. The primary rounds will provide opportunities to all the parties registered with the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB), to participate as it is multi-party elections.

After the primary rounds it is assure d that the two parties who win in the primaries would go on to the general elections where the winner would become the ruling party and the other would form the opposition party.

In the context of the 2013 Elections in Bhutan, there are five parties who will contest to become the next ruling government and the opposition party.

The parties are the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), Opposition party People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the three new entries of Bhutan Kuen-Ngyam Party (BKP),  Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT) and Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT).

The two winners or the two parties with the highest votes would enter the general rounds automatically but there is no law to prevent candidates of the three losing parties from joining either of the two winning parties to continue the race.

Through this process generally called ‘horse trading’ in political lingo, a candidate from a party would be at liberty to hop onto another party as a candidate in one of the two parties who have crossed the primary rounds.

In the scenario closer home after the primary rounds when  two parties are declared winners and put through to the general rounds, candidates from the three losing party can switch parties and join any one of the two parties who have entered the general round.

This, however is a very unlikely turn of event, says Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk.

He explained:

If some of the candidates from the three losing parties (whose role for 2013 elections have ended) joins either of the two winning parties from the primary rounds there is now law that prevents them from doing so.

“But it would call for the candidate firstly, accepting in a very short time – new leadership. Secondly, even more seriously the respective candidates would have to accept or adopt ideologies quite different from what he/she stood for as candidates of the previous party he/she joined,” said Lyonpo Khandu.

Also, the electorate would take note of such behavioral patterns in candidates. In effect this could affect formation of general views, perceptions and opinions compounded by the masses or the voters on such candidates. This will definitely affect the political career of such individuals.

Because of this loophole in rules where candidates can join the ruling party or the opposition there is indirectly room for formation of coalition in both the ruling and opposition parties.

“This will tantamount actually to violation, subtle and indirect violation of what Constitution provided for,” said the MoEA minister.

The economic affairs minister’s words cannot be ruled out as possibilities, especially since it has also been said on-record in the media that candidates will jump ship after the primaries if their party loses.

One such candidate was MP Damcho Dorji of the PDP who said in an earlier interview that except for joining the DPT which is his one condition withstanding, he would consider joining a different party after the primary, but that is if events should dictate a different outcome for his party in the primary rounds.

The party-swinging event was not an option in the open during the 2008 elections as the general elections were held directly due to the fact that only two parties stood elections. It negated the need for a primary or the whole point of having one.

“Let us see how we as Bhutanese handle this which goes against the constitution,” Lyonpo Khandu said.

The works and human settlement minister Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba on the same topic commented that in a manner of speaking events are already ganging up on this, that is, parties getting together after the primary round.

“The danger of this is that when we enter the primary round we enter on the basis of the identity of a party, on the basis of a certain platform, certain principles maybe enshrined in the manifestos or being talked-about widely. The people have made their choices on these bases,” Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba said.

“If people are going to join-up anywhere after the primary rounds the whole principles, on the basis of which parties have come up is being compromised.”

Further, the danger of such turn of events is that in the future not only would people ‘gang-up’ but it would lead to a situation where the faith in the political system and parties will evaporate from the minds of the electorate.

“There will be no faith and confidence in the parties, because people will know that parties are being formed just for the short-term convenience and they are not very serious. That after the first round people are going to do pretty much what they like. And I think this will be detrimental, to the kind of political system that we are trying to promote,” Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba concluded.

The labor minister Lyonpo Dorji Wangdi said the Bhutanese democratic system is not designed for coalitions and if such events are allowed to happen it can have ramifications even for the security and sovereignty of the country in the long run.”

The labor minister also clarified what media from then and even lately reported that the DPT is an amalgamation of the Bhutan People’s United Party (BPUP) and the All People’s Party (APP). This according to Lyonpo Dorji Wangdi could be used as a justification for parties to merge or for their candidates to hop from one party to another.

He said this is wrong because the BPUP and APP were never registered with the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) to be called bonafide political parties.

Health minister Lyonpo Zanglay Dukpa said “marriage of convenience has to question intelligently and we believe the media can play a role here.”

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