Political campaigning and the inevitable politicking by political parties that go with it are an important component of Bhutanese democracy.
It allows for voters to make informed choices, and also gives them an opportunity to observe, at close quarters, their potential leaders in both positive and negative light.
However, drawing from the lessons of the 2008 campaign, and also developments in the 2013 campaigning, politics has left unintended negative consequences.
While it is naive to expect everybody to be just one big happy family with no problems, at the same time, people should not be at each other’s throats over political affiliations and choices.
Party politics in Bhutan, has so far suffered from two main problems. One is that politics in Bhutan, as with many public issues, is a highly personalized matter. There is an inability or maturity to deal with differences and still hold respect for each other’s choices, and remain friends. This, often results in the divisions at the community and at times the family unit level, with painful social and emotional consequences.
Things get so petty with political rivals, that on most occasions, they are unable to sit in the same row without feeling extremely uncomfortable.
For example, in India, its politics, which we like to scoff at; the ruling party leader and the opposition leader fight it out in the Parliament, but treat each other with the genuine deference and respect in social gatherings. This political maturity to separate the personal from the professional matters is sorely missing in Bhutan. This is not only between parties, but also apparent in the relationship of politicians with the media, constitutional bodies, etc.
The second major problem is that party politics in Bhutan is treated like a zero sum game, where the winner takes all, and the loser is expected to accept complete and absolute defeat. As shown in the relationship between the incumbent ruling party and opposition party, there is no room for compromise and no middle path. The incumbent ruling party had also assumed that since it has the mandate of the people, therefore, there is no requirement to consult with them on major issues. Those who have questioned its divine right to rule without question, like the media, are treated as being on the ‘other’ side, and punished using the pliable government machinery.
This kind of trigger happy, vindictive, and prosecutorial style of politics, if not checked, could make Bhutanese democracy similar to other countries where a ruling party’s first job is to prosecute the opposition and individuals that it sees as a political threat and vice versa.
In Bhutan, one of the biggest fears of candidates and party workers is not of just losing, but of the measures the ruling party that comes to power, will impose on them for daring to oppose them. There is already some evidence, like an ACC investigation on the questionable use of CDG, by an incumbent MP to reward party supporters that Bhutan is heading in the direction of zero sum game in politics.
In a healthy democracy, the choice at the ballot box should be based on the different ideologies and parties vision, not one where a win or lose could make you a millionaire or pauper overnight, due to the attitude of the party that comes to power.
Bhutanese politics, for the sake of democracy and the well being of the nation, needs to get out of both the above political black holes.
Be it family members, community members or political party rivals, the people should be able to respect and accept each other’s differing choices, and not label them as the ‘other’. In America, the Republican fathers and Democrat sons get along very well despite their differences.
There is an urgent need for Bhutanese politicians, and even senior officials to grow thick skins, and have an open mind towards criticism or differences. There is also a need for greater political maturity, tolerance and harmony. However, the above should not be confused with the lack of criticism.
Whichever political party comes to power in 2013, it should purse a style of governance that brings together different and contending groups, and one that addresses their concerns in a fair manner. If this is not done then political battle will not end at the ballot box, and politics will become more desperate and dangerous as evident in some nations around the world.
Bhutanese democracy has had a positive and noble start, after the sacrifice of our Kings who gave up vast powers so that ordinary Bhutanese citizens are more empowered to govern themselves, towards a stronger and more progressive nation. It is, now, up to ordinary Bhutanese and political leaders, irrespective of the excuses and drawback – to use this power for either the greater or lesser good?
“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America.”