There is nothing predictable about elections in Bhutan but a Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) victory in the East was a given as seen in the 2008 National Assembly elections, 2013 primary and general round elections, 2018 primary and general round elections and so the same was expected in the 2023 primary round elections.
However, in a massive upset DPT won only two seats in Pemagatshel which was Khar-Yurung and Nganglam and instead the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) picked up 12 seats out of 17 in the six eastern Dzongkhags and four more in Bumthang and Zhemgang which had also been DPT strongholds. The biggest surprise among them was Nanong Shumar going with PDP which had formerly been the seat of the first DPT President.
Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP) picked up three seats in the east.
The warning sign for the DPT was clear when it first lost its stronghold of Chhoekhor Tang in November 2020 to Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) followed by the loss of Nganglam to DNT in June 2021. DNT also retained Mongar constituency in the 2021 bye election.
Decline of DPT in the East from 2013 onwards
While all of the above are recent developments the slow but sure decline of DPT was visible in the East from the 2013 general elections onwards.
While anti-incumbency was much stronger and faster in western and southern Bhutan it was slower moving in the east but definitely there. There was already growing voter fatigue with DPT in the east from 2013 onwards.
While DPT did great all over the country in 2008 elections there was a significant drop in the 2013 polls in the east though it still won there in most seats. In the 2018 general round the DPT had given hopes of forming the government and there was another push from the east but even then, there was an overall drop compared to 2013 in many seats there. Then in 2023 the biggest drop happened.
An important qualifier here to keep in mind is that the 2008, 2013 and 2018 figures are general election round figures where percentages are higher since it is only two parties whereas in 2023 the figure is for the primary round with five parties.
DPT was in continuous decline in the 2013 and 2018 polls in the 3 biggest eastern Dzongkhags of Trashigang, Mongar and Pemagatshel and the fourth being Lhuentse all of which provides 11 seats among them.
Dzongkhag wise, DPT’s vote share in Pemagatshel declined from 88.26% in 2008 to 80.06% in 2013 and a sharp decline of 67.20% in 2018. They kept winning seats so this decline was not noticed.
In the 2023 primary round it dropped to 33.15% though it won its only two seats here in Khar-Yurung and Nganglam.
In Mongar Dzongkhag it declined from 78.06% in 2008 to 59.3% in 2013 to 55.78% in 2018. In 2013 and 2018 the Dzongkhag gave up the Mongar Constituency to PDP and DNT respectively. In 2023 primary round it dropped to 21.40% losing all 3 seats to PDP.
In Trashigang, DPT in 2008 started with 74.58 % which fell to 50.78 % in 2013 and 50.66 % in 2018.
Trashigang gave PDP 3 seats in 2013 and 2 seats to DNT in 2018. In 2023, it dropped to 12.91% losing all five seats to PDP (3) and BTP (2).
Lhuentse has seen a sharp decline in support for DPT from 71.75 % in 2008 to 52.1 % in 2013 and 49.88 % in 2018. In 2013, it gave one seat to PDP and in 2018 to DNT. In 2023, it dropped to 14.37% losing both seats to PDP.
Samdrupjongkhar in 2008 gave 69.35 % votes to DPT which crashed in 2013 to only 45.5 % of the votes and losses of both seats to PDP. In 2018 DPT won back both the seats as it got an overall support of 53.13 %. In 2023, it dropped to 22.83% losing both seats to PDP.
DPT was a bit stronger in Trashiyangtse but here too some general trends apply. The Dzongkhag in 2008 gave DPT 70.8 % of the votes which dropped to 49.72 % in 2013. It was in 2013 too that DPT lost its Khamdang-Ramjar (48.21 %) seat to PDP. In 2018 DPT bounced back with 56.35 % winning both the seats. In 2023, it dropped to 19.69% losing the 2 seats to PDP and BTP.
Bumthang and Zhemgang fall in the central region but going by the geographical location, past voting trends and also two Opposition leaders being from Bumthang and Zhemgang, the two Dzongkhags have been classified here as a part of the eastern Dzongkhags.
In 2008, Bumthang gave 67.1 % votes to DPT which dropped to 54.6 % in 2013 along with the loss of the Chumig-Ura seat to PDP. In 2018 DPT’s President and Prime Ministerial candidate was from Bumthang and so the overall Dzongkhag support went up to 59.10 %. But, here apart from the convincing win in Chhoekhor-Tang (67.9 %) DPT had a very narrow win in Chumig-Ura with only 50.31 % of the votes or a difference of 18 votes. In 2023, it dropped to 15.29% with both seats going to PDP.
Zhemgang gave DPT only 55.2 % in 2008 along with its two seats but in 2013 this dropped to 46.15 % along with the loss of the Bardo-Trong (41.7 %) seat to PDP. In 2013 the current DPT President nearly did not make it as he got only 50.6 % of the votes from Panbang.
In 2018 Zhemgang gave DPT a slight boost of 52.15 % of its votes and the two seats. However, the catch here is that DPT won Bardo-Trong with a very narrow margin of 50.88 %.
In 2023, it dropped to 29.33% with the loss of both seats including that of the DPT President to PDP.
As noted by this paper in 2018 a look at the voting trends of the eastern Dzongkhags in the last three general elections show that DPT’s greatest strength of winning election after election and seat after seat from the eastern Dzongkhags can also become its greatest weakness which it did in 2023.
This was because even in its strongest seats its vote share was coming down with each election with a slow but sure constituency level anti-incumbency which opened a pathway to rival political parties.
In the 2018 general elections the 17 seats won by DPT all had come from the above eight Dzongkhags.
Views on the 2023 drop
Since PDP won big in the east in the primary round the paper asked a senior PDP party official on where did DPT go wrong.
The PDP official said that there was voter fatigue in the east with DPT and they were tired of being in the Opposition for the last 10 years.
The official said that DPT did not work hard in the east and they were relying on the undercurrent and were also banking on emotions and loyalty being in favour of DPT. The party was so confident of a win that in some places it did not even have coordinators.
A major flaw in the DPT strategy was that it stuck with even underperforming candidates not wanting to hurt sentiments by changing them.
The paper talked to a senior DPT Party official on the condition of anonymity on the reasons for the 2023 defeat.
The senior DPT official said there are two main reasons why DPT lost this time. He alleged the first is the use of regionalism saying BTP did it informally by pitching the BTP President as the first proper eastern Prime Minister. The DPT official said that the second factor was that the two new parties BTP and Druk Thuendrel Tshogpa did a lot of work in the east and so the votes and supporters got split.
The official said that PDP did well in the east because it worked hard in the ground for five years and kept in touch with officials and deployed more resources there.
The DPT official said that PDP also learnt from its old mistakes, understood them and changed.
The official also conceded that voter fatigue played a part as people in the east voted for DPT for three elections including 10 years in the Opposition. He said other parties played on this at the ground level saying DPT will never get to become the ruling party and that voters would be better coming with the other parties.
However, he said that if PDP can get support from others then why couldn’t DPT bring back its own supports in another five years by working hard. He said the sentimental attachment of the eastern voters is still with DPT and that eastern voters are more sentimental and loyal. He said this is a chance to reformat the party after seeking different views and then come back stronger in 2029.
Apart from what the parties say it is clear that the anti-incumbency against the DNT also hit DPT hard and this was further reinforced when both were friendly during the debates.
The DPT President Dorji Wangdi had a different take from most of the above.
He said that in the matter if elections you do not do well it is either because you are not prepared or because the competitors are doing something. He said in this the loss is not due to DPT not preparing but because the others have been doing something.
The DPT President said four factors are to blame for DPT’s defeat. He said the first reason is that the two parties on the top have a bigger financial muscle. While DPT makes this allegation against the two top parties two PDP and BTP officials who talked to this paper asked DPT for the evidence of this charge and said DPT is in no position to claim the moral high ground.
The DPT President said the second reason is that the other parties have been spreading a lot of false information and confusion, including saying that DPT is not coming back. He said the third reason is that the two new parties BTP and DTT affected DPT more than PDP. He said the fourth factor is that parties went beyond the ECB approved manifesto in their pledges. He said such pledges can swing things when there are only a handful of voters and five parties.
The DPT President said that the loss has nothing to do with voter fatigue as he does not even buy an iota of that reason as people are still showing the same attitude to him before and after the election.
It is clear that the DPT senior leadership, for now, is putting up a brave face externally and is putting the blame for the loss on external factors and not on anything they did or did not do.
This strategy of a somehow wronged or an innocent martyred party may have worked to a certain degree in the past to get sympathy votes, but it remains to be seen if it will work in the future.