By the evening of 15th September, 2018, it was clear that the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had been knocked out of the Primary Round in the third National Assembly elections. This came as a shock as the party was hoping to form the government, albeit with less MPs.
On 17th September, 2018, this paper published a detailed analysis piece of why a party hoping to form the government based on its economic performance had been knocked out in the first stage itself.
It seems that the party leadership took that critical piece seriously and started working in earnest right from 2018 onwards for the 2023 elections.
The language barrier
In 2018 this paper mentioned that the DNT President made a huge impact in the South due to his fluent Lhotsamph Kha with many of his videos going viral. The PDP President’s Lhotsamph Kha was spoken with effort.
Both the DPT and DNT Presidents in 2018 were fluent in Tshangla for voters in the east while the PDP President simply could not speak the language.
Learning from this, the PDP President spent the next few years learning both languages. He hired a Tshangla language teacher and a classical Lhotsamph language teacher.
The fluency of the PDP President in both languages enabled him to convey his message to large audiences in the south and east and also online.
Older Lhotsamphas were particularly impressed that the PDP President could speak in the classical Lhotsamph language.
Crossing the linguistic barrier endeared him or made him acceptable to both Southern and Eastern voters.
PDP would have won the primary round in 2018 had it not been for the postal ballots. PDP had gotten the highest EVM votes but the postal ballots went in favor of DNT and DPT.
The PDP party knowing about this danger made a concerted and big effort to mobilize civil servants and students to gain more postal ballots.
PDP, as a result, secured the highest postal ballots in the 2023 elections.
This paper in 2018 pointed out that despite having 33 MPs in Parliament the party failed to look after and strengthen its party machinery. It hoped that voters would vote for them just based on their performance and so party coordinators, tshogpas and workers were ignored.
They were made to feel even unwelcome as PDP in 2018 wanted an ‘apolitical image,’ which contrasted with DNT which spent time from 2013 to 2018 strengthening its party and getting the highest registered members among parties.
Learning from that bitter lesson, PDP got to work from 2018 onwards rebuilding its party organization. The PDP President and his team traveled regularly to the Dzongkhags and gewogs meeting with coordinators and grass root workers and taking care of them.
PDP also built up the highest registered members among the five parties at around 6,000 members.
Even though the party was well known in the grassroots, it used the familiarization period to hold 215 meetings in 175 Gewogs and 55 meetings in 20 Dzongkhags in the election campaign period for the Primary round
Regionalism and rumors
A big weakness for PDP in both 2013 and more so in 2018 was that the fact that it could not make a significant impact in the east except for a few seats.
This was because the east was largely seen as a DPT stronghold.
What worked against PDP in 2018 was rumors spread by opponents that it did not bring equal development to the east and also other rumors that it would make people pay for healthcare.
Neither of the above was true, but the rumors gained strength in 2018 contributing to PDP’s defeat.
Politics at the time was highly polarized and DPT was also seen as being under attack and so the eastern voters in both a backlash and sympathy rallied strongly around DPT.
This time around PDP used its party network in the east to tell voters that there was no truth to unequal opportunities and resources and of making people pay for healthcare.
PDP said it has worked for all from 2013 to 2018. It also made it clear to eastern voters that PDP does not represent any particular region. The party worked hard in the east to win hearts and gain support.
The result was clear with primary rounds with PDP make inroads for the first time into DPT strongholds in Mongar and Pemagatshel and picking up the most number of eastern seats.
Performance from 2013 to 2018
When PDP came into government in 2013 it resolved the Rupee crisis, reopened loans and allowed in imports including cars.
It also carried out popular measures like reducing loan interest rates, reducing PIT taxes, reducing fuel prices, doing away with BIT for rural shops, giving 100 units power free in rural areas, creating subsidized employment schemes.
Rural areas got special attention with various projects and schemes.
It had avoided major corruption cases unlike its predecessor and took strong action including against ministers when allegations did come.
The economy was booming from tourism to industries and there was no mass migration.
However, at the time despite its performance anti-incumbency played its role and PDP was booted out with DNT taking over its voter base.
In the 2023 polls the voters had a clear choice between DPT, PDP and DNT based on their governance records.
What helped PDP the most was the absence of any economic and financial crisis during it tenure.
Truth telling, image issue and sympathy
The PDP Convention in Thimphu that went viral on social media saw the PDP President talking some inconvenient but hard truths on the state of the economy and the high migration rate. It openly talked about the multiple crises facing the country.
This carried on through the various debates and contrasted with the softer stance taken by DPT and other parties on DNT’s track record.
While other parties were going easy on DNT hoping to get its support for the final round, PDP’s messaging on the state of affairs clicked with the voters.
Since its inception, PDP has suffered an image problem of being a party of the powerful and rich. To tackle this, from 2018 onwards while it worked quietly on the ground to tell people this is not the case and it also kept a low profile as it did not want to come out as domineering.
In the 2023 campaign it said the above image of the party is not true and it instead stressed on the competence level of the party.
Since PDP was seen as the strongest party in 2023 given the buzz around it and its track record more often than not the other parties ganged up against it.
This was especially visible in the first round of the Vice President’s debate when all questions on the economy was asked to the PDP VP.
This ganging up of the parties showed firstly that PDP is the party to beat and secondly it helped build up sympathy for the party.
Social Media and Manifesto
PDP lost the social media game from 2013 to 2018 as huge fake online forums mainly on Facebook painted a strong narrative against PDP, despite its performance, including using fake news and half-truths and in a climate of political polarization.
Here Facebook’s decision to globally strengthen its policing of fake news and hate speech online led to the taking down of some of these forums for violating community guidelines.
In 2023 PDP used its official social media accounts effectively to share its message and pledges.
Among all the Manifestos the longest and most ambitious was by PDP at 138 pages covering almost every aspect.
Parties attempted to attack PDP for its 15 billion Economic Stimulus Plan but this backfired as it made PDP seem more prepared than the others.