Loss of faith in mainstream parties in the West and lessons for Bhutan

Two recent political phenomenon that have shaken political capitals has been the rise of Trump and Brexit or Britain’s recent exit from the European Union.

Both are related in that they show the growing distrust of mainstream political parties, politicians and political institutions including the US Congress in USA and the EU Parliament in the case of Britain.

This is not all as other European countries like France, Austria, Hungary, Greece, Italy,  Denmark etc are witnessing the rise of far right and in some cases far left parties at the cost of mainstream parties.

There are several reasons for this but it is important to focus on the main reason and understand that the political developments on the surface are only symptoms of deeper problems.

The main reason for the political turmoil is economic as both USA and Europe were hit the hardest by the 2008 crisis and it’s after effects. However, even prior to 2008 there has been a rapidly widening wealth gap between the rich and the middle class. The wealth gap would not be much of an issue if the middle class real wages went up but it has been observed that in relative terms the income levels of the middle and lower middle classes are fairly static.

The twin effect of globalization and new technologies have ensured that many jobs in the West have either been outsourced or mechanized.

The political problem comes in because the political parties and institutions are seen as being part of problem in this growing wealth inequality. This thinking would not be very far from the truth given how lobbyists and campaign donors from huge companies have a huge say in these parties. As a recent New York Times investigation showed such lobbyists even drafted bills that favored their companies and then they got it passed in the State Legislatures in the USA. This is often at the cost of the greater public and national interest.

For Bhutan there are two main lessons to be drawn from what is happening in the West. We cannot rest easy thinking we are a young democracy as ideas and perceptions travel much faster in today’s world especially if similar situations exist.

Bhutan which was a relatively egalitarian society now has the problem of a growing wealth gap combined with a youth unemployment issue. The added risk for Bhutan is crony capitalism and a comparatively less efficient system than in the West. So while the government has to ensure growth it must not be a simple statistic and it should benefit people. It is also important to ensure that vital national resources like hydropower remain with the government.

Even though the political culture is relatively new there is already a certain degree of skepticism against politicians who are seen to be hankering after the perks of office. However, a more serious issue that could emerge, if we are not careful, is of political parties being excessively beholden to donors. We already saw the scale and magnitude of ‘policy corruption’ issues in the recent past.

The mistake to make is to assume that Bhutan is ‘unique’ and not guard against such global and regional political trends. The stakes are much higher for a small and vulnerable country like ours.


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