Bhutan is winding up its first five years of democracy with the general elections approaching soon. In the past five years Bhutan has defined itself as a fairly competent elective democracy but there is still a lot to be done to make it a participatory democracy.
Though elections are an important and basic necessity of democracy the best international examples of good and successful democracies are those that go beyond elections and involve citizens in the democratic process.
When democracy was introduced in Bhutan by the throne it was not only given to ministers, MPs, Judges and Dashos but to each and every citizen as a gift from the throne. It can, therefore, be assumed that the sovereign authority of the elected government to rule is based on the sovereign authority given by the people who in turn have been given that authority from the throne.
However, in reality the bureaucratic and political system is yet to recognize this reality and their style of functioning would make one think that they are the source of sovereign authority as well.
For instance, services to the people like roads, water, electricity, licenses etc are the rights of the people as both the ruling bureaucratic and political class are there to serve the people. However, in reality these services are treated almost as ‘kidu’ by the political and bureaucratic elite for which people have to grovel and be grateful for.
There is also a highly ‘elitist’ attitude among the bureaucracy and politicians many of whom consider themselves to be superior to the ordinary classes and expect to be ‘Dashoed’ at every opportunity. This is also in compete contrast to the constitution and Bhutan’s democratic transition whereby people are the masters.
When, people talk of spreading democratic culture in Bhutan it should not be confused with strengthening the political system or political parties, who as we now know enjoy and exercise vast powers.
After the 2008 elections when there was public criticism of MPs rushing to get Patangs and other entitlements it was not a ‘jealous or petty’ reaction from the public. It was also not an attempt to not give politician their due as some politicians interpreted it to be.
The public reacted as they saw their democratic representatives who claimed to be one of the people during the election campaigns, rushing to distinguish and raise themselves above their voters in a competition with red scarf, green and orange scarves.
Political parties new and old that seek to make a mark in Bhutan’s destiny must focus on converting Bhutan’s elective democracy to a participatory democracy.
This is not only as a matter of principal but also because of growing awareness among ordinary citizens who are now no longer satisfied with business as usual. The era of ‘I know what is best for you’ is over.
Bhutanese citizens have to be given services as rights as they pay the taxes that in turn pay the salaries of politicians and bureaucrats.
More importantly the power exercise by politicians and bureaucrats come from the citizens and so this power should be exercised for their benefit in close consultation with them. The citizens should have right to know what is being done on their behalf and how well it is being done.
An important requirement in a participatory democracy is transparency in decision making and implementation.
Though there have been some improvements in transparency primarily in terms of informative websites and interaction with the media the overall system still retains its shy and intransparent nature.
The lack of adequate transparency from the system has the twin effects of not only preventing system from improving but also keeps citizens out of the system.
For a genuine participatory democracy politicians and bureaucrats apart from serving the people in a spirit of service should keep the system open to checks and balances by ordinary citizens.
This can be done by way of passing important legislation like Right to Information and making the bureaucratic system more open and service friendly.
The lack of such a fundamental changes in our democracy leads to the common cynicism among many citizens who feel that with democracy we have had some cosmetic changes, but deep and structural changes are still awaited.
Without such changes both in attitude and practice Bhutan’s elective democracy will empower its citizens only once every five years.