The recent Thromde elections saw a general trend of lower turnouts at Zomdus and difficulty in getting candidates for various posts.
This has also been observed in past local government elections. While at one level it is understandable to see higher turnouts for General Elections the much lower levels of enthusiasm for local government elections is a matter for concern.
It shows that there is still a misconception that the central government looks after all issues.
However, in reality a large part of the quality of our life and surrounding facilities depends on local governments, be they the Gewog Administration in villages or Thromdes in urban areas.
Important everyday issues like drinking water, sewage and sanitation, garbage, local roads, street lights, public toilets, construction permits, other permits, land zoning, urban planning, parks, regulating street vendors, demolition, monitoring, fines etc are all controlled by the local government. This is not to mention issues like census, dispute resolution and implementation of larger national programs.
Therefore, the underestimated local government is a seat of significant influence and responsibility having a lot of say in governance at the immediate and local level. This is especially so in a small country where a Thimphu or Phuntsholing Thrompon can command authority and budgets equal to even ministers.
At one level, since our democracy is still in its early stages, all of this is yet to sink into a majority of voters and potential candidates.
However, at another level, all of the above again proves that while we like to whine a lot there are very few who are prepared to do something to make the situation better.
A lot of people like to complain for five years about everything that is wrong with local governments in both service delivery and infrastructure issues be it drinking water, sewage etc. However the low turnout of candidates and low voter turnout at zomdus show that people are not willing to take part and make their own choices to improve local governance and in doing so their own lives.
One good example is the Thimphu Thromde with only one Thrompon candidate and low zomdu turn outs. It is amazing to note the election for the head of Bhutan’s biggest and most important capital city is more like a local Babesa village election which most likely will be decided by the former village. Though the city has around 100,000 residents, many of whom reside here permanently, many have not even bothered to change their census to be able to vote and take part in the process.
Then there are the urban dwellers who even while being registered either do not take part in the election process or are not enthusiastic about it. However, they will be among the first to point fingers when something goes wrong.
Going by the lack of general enthusiasm and the Babesa vote bank the current Thrompon can be assured of his seat for eternity as long as Babesa is happy. The Thrompon cannot be blamed here as it reflects larger voter apathy. This is not only the case in Thimphu but in other Thromdes where general voter apathy can leads to small local elites calling the shots. This is not healthy in any democracy.
Voter apathy for local government posts, in the long run, is also not good for the elected heads as it weaken the mandate of elected local government heads as opposed to unelected bureaucrats. This is in the context of Bhutan’s senior bureaucracy having an unhealthy habit of trying to take on the powers of elected heads. Voters have to therefore stay engaged, both for themselves and the improvement of the system.
The stakes are even higher in rural areas as local governments there play an even bigger role in the lives of people. However, here too, there is a problem of voter apathy leading at times to very rotten apples being elected and making life miserable for the rural folk.
In a recent talk given by a respected Indian politician at the Royal Institute of Governance and Strategic Studies, he stressed on the need for citizens to take part in the democratic process to make democracy work. This applies to Bhutan’s young democracy as well.
The great former American President Abraham Lincoln once said, “Elections belong to the people. It is their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”
With democracy and devolution of powers and finances, local governments will only continue to become more important. It is time that voters start taking local governments more seriously not only during elections but in the entire five years. At the end of the day people do get the government they deserve.
By Tenzing Lamsang