Opinion: Evolution of Bhutanese Democracy –Final Part
VISION: As far as the vision is concerned the 4th Druk Gyalpo and our present King have unequivocally outlined it. The way I understand it is: their Majesties have envisioned the best and most suitable system that ensures Good Governance and Citizen Participation, which is enduring and reliable and most of all guided by democratic norms and the rule of law.
The King has laid down the image of a country where people live in harmony and see their individual and public lives as extensions of each other. Where everything is done in cooperation and the disunity, discord and divisions of large democracies is not to be found.
For our Kings vision to reach fruition, today our country desperately needs some serious introspection. Almost five years have gone by and as of now democracy’s progress is still very substandard. In other words, considering the advantages we have had, we should have achieved a lot more than we did. It’s not about: what we have achieved; but at this juncture, to ask ourselves whether we could have achieved more; and whether we are on the right path?
Now let me be very frank. Today, people frequently ask: who is going to lead the new political parties? And as a result most parties are desperately trying to find a person with the national stature for the upcoming elections.
Then remember ‘The JYT Factor’ as is in the lingo nowadays. Unfortunately in Bhutan owing to lack of experience, we have fallen into a peculiar pitfall where a ‘Special Guardian Leadership’ is being promoted. When Guardian leaders assume a larger role and higher equality than others that is what causes uncertainty.
We can draw lessons from many Asian Countries and New Democracies who have all had their share of bitter experiences with Guardian Leaders. In Bhutan, I dare say, that our PM has assumed a larger role for himself than what is generally prescribed by any democratic system. Its long-term impact is yet to be fully understood.
The very tenet of Democracy is taken away when a single elected leader has a plentitude of unfettered Power. When one institution or player, for whatever reasons usurps the powers of the other institutions and players ‘autocracy’ is born.
According to a study, there are many factors that can invite an autocratic regime even within a democratic setup. Apathy is generally attributed as being one of the causes. Another factor is when senior and high officials remain unchanged; the heads of organizations habitually gravitate towards one power center or the other in order to preserve the favorable status quo. Such circumstances reinforce and create conditions for oligarchies, plutocracies or polyarchy rule and if not, autocracy becomes the default mode of decision making.
We should be aware of such eventualities and risk.
I write this at a moment when our country only managed to secure 19 votes not including our own, out of 193 votes for the UNSC Non-Permanent Seat. After a bleeding campaign, which I reckon would have expended huge amounts of public time and resources. Juxtapose this adventurous foreign escapade to a more purposeful and mature foreign policy with greater focus on the home front. We are often blind to other possibilities because the numerous headlines of achievements camouflages failures of the government in foreign affairs, and at home hide growing distributive disparities and brewing discontent. But again all failures predictably end with the usual ambiguous account of how the country has gained from the experience.
Why do I site this timely example? Because it is the most succinct example of the manner in which the elected government has taken major decisions on behalf of the people, without consultation and consensus, and gone against the majority opinion. Only to fail, set the nation back by decades and no responsibility is taken for such a debacle. This is the dark side of guardian leadership. You take decisions because you say you know better than the people you rule. You succeed, you take the credit and if you fail, you’re not accountable.
In the four years, the groundwork for autocracy has begun to be laid. This must be regarded with great worry as a threat to a sustainable democracy.
Another major concern is: when people in political office become dubiously rich within a short span of time while limited resources go grossly mismanaged. In a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, Lord Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He was speaking against the doctrine of papal infallibility.
When we start to believe that power inevitably corrupts and that no matter whom we vote for, in the end, they will all become corrupt- given time. This will certainly draw a wedge between the people and our elected leaders.
Corruption is becoming very visible in our country leading to people becoming disenchanted with the entire democratic process. But what gives corruption the power to destroy a democracy is when the corruption is institutionalized. We know that a corrupt police constable can be punished. But what happens with the powerful? When leaders do get caught breaking laws, mismanaging millions and directing state resources like land or licenses to family and making business deals for personal enrichment, what transpires? Here we have witnessed Powerful people go untouched even by the law. Either they engineer a crafty strategy to exonerate themselves, preying on the gullibility of people or remain protected under the veil of power. This is institutionalized corruption where those making laws or policies, implementing them or protecting them all conspire for their own benefit.
If we aren’t careful, as things stand, future political aspirants will see political office as an avenue to become rich, powerful and they will be self-serving. In time people may get accustomed to having a dysfunctional and corrupt system. Once there is a degree of acceptance, after that, it is much harder to reverse the vicious cycle. So it is always better to be cautious and preempt any danger of mishap. Good people with good intentions and good examples must take lead in shaping our democratic system.
In spite of the unacceptable dangers of the first four years, Democracy in Bhutan can still turn around and become a big success. Small is Beautiful: Theoretically small societies, compact political systems and manageable geographical size have a higher chance of success. In Bhutan, democracy can flourish with a truly high level of citizen participation that larger countries can never match.
The best form of democracy is when the Institutions are responsive to people’s aspirations, self-healing during times of crisis and corrective after setbacks. A good democratic system does not rest its survival on a single political leader or a Party. In the end, no democracy will turn out right, if people do not believe that government is accountable to them.
The legal framework, the administrative and political apparatus, has been designed soundly in content and reach, in order to lay down a foundation upon which good and effective governance will be at its core. This is central to achieving a successful democratic system. Other factors that will determine our future, like: our leaders ability to provide objective guidance and give inspiration; peoples access to knowledge; the right environment to gain experience; to build reliable organizations and institutional systems; our ethos and values that will shape our outlook and attitude to new dimensions of nation building and survival.
Democracy is not just about elections. It’s also about the democracy in between elections. We had our elections in 2008 but are yet to see democracy.
Phub Wangdi pursuing his studies in Australia gives his take on Bhutanese democracy so far