But three X factors could also work against PDP
Going into the general election round in 2023, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) looks almost unassailable in its first-place position due to the sheer gap between it and its closest competitor the Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP).
This is because in 11 seats PDP got more votes than all the other four parties combined. In 8 seats PDP got more votes than three other parties or even more combined.
Then in 12 seats PDP is sitting pretty given its large lead over BTP which cannot be dislodged even if a combination of 1 or 2 parties votes all join BTP.
This means 31 seats where PDP is either very strong or strong.
In the case of BTP, apart from the four seats it won in the primary round on its own, it can pick up 12 seats won by PDP in the primary round with help from DPT.
This is a total of 16 seats for BTP as of now.
The obvious question is what about Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) and Druk Thuendrel Tshogpa (DTT) voters. Here it must be said that the PDP and DNT largely share the same voter base in the west, south and parts of the east and so even in the best-case scenario for BTP the DNT voters would split equally between PDP and BTP which would not have an impact on PDP.
The number of DTT votes is similar to what the now defunct BKP party got in 2018 and so will not have much of an impact either way.
The hopes of BTP rides on the fact that the party that got the highest votes in the 2018 and 2013 primary rounds, which was DPT, on both occasions did not get to form the government.
However, a closer look shows that this analogy is not as straightforward, especially given the huge size and scale of the PDP win.
In 2018 in the primary round DPT got 30.92% of the votes and 22 seats while DNT got 31.85% of the votes and 16 seats and PDP got 27.44% of the votes and 9 seats.
It was very clear from the primary round that PDP voters would be the decisive factor and there was no way the majority of PDP voters would back DPT, especially given that both PDP and DNT shared the same voter base.
As a result, DNT won the general election with 30 seats and 54.95% of the total votes.
In the 2013 primary round the DPT party got 44.53% of the votes and 33 seats. PDP got 31.51% of the votes and 12 seats while DNT got 17.01% of the votes and 2 seats and DCT got around 5.9% of the votes.
However, if one looked at the results more closely then, in addition to the 12 seats won by PDP it had very close contests with DPT in several seats which it would have won had DNT not been in the race and attracted away many votes.
DPT’s vote share was big due to its huge victory margins in the east in places like Pemagatshel, Mongar, Trashigang, Zhemgang etc. It is also important to consider that DPT was the incumbent party.
After the primary round, seven candidates from DNT including its President and Vice President joined the PDP and the rest is history as PDP picked up 32 seats and formed the government in 2013.
The reason that BTP cannot rely on the two instances of the past to win is that firstly, the huge lead that PDP has over it winning 42.53% of the primary round votes which is even more significant given it is a five-party race.
BTP trails far behind at 19.58% of the votes.
The other problem for BTP is that it shares its voter base more with DPT and while that can be a huge help in the east and parts of central Bhutan it is of not much help in the south and west.
The vote margins between PDP and BTP are too big to be covered up mainly in the southern and western Dzongkhags and even parts of the east which is the golden triangle to power in Bhutan.
The BTP will be relying on the sympathy and underdog factor to get votes which is a powerful force in Bhutanese politics, but PDP will be relying on another more powerful force which is the need to be on the winning side.
If given a choice and some foreknowledge then Bhutanese voters always prefer a ministerial candidate or if not that then at least an MP from the ruling party.
This is why except for Nanong Shumar all other bye-elections went in favor of the ruling party like North Thimphu, Chhoekhor Tang, Khamdang Ramjar and Nganglam.
Voters in various constituencies know that PDP has a much higher chance of forming the government which may even put BTP in danger in some seats it won like Khamed-Lunana (by 4 votes) or Wamrong (by 266 votes).
BTP will get a big push from eastern voters wanting to see an eastern Prime Minister and DPT supporters not wanting to see a PDP government, but the impact of that will be limited mainly to the east and BTP may well end up occupying the Opposition space previously occupied by DPT.
It is also important to note that regional identity and polarization works both ways. One of the reasons that PDP got so much traction in southern Bhutan is due to the fact that BTP and DTT were going out of their way to appeal to eastern Bhutan.
Southern Bhutanese in reaction decided to tie their fate to PDP.
This also works in the same way in western Bhutan where if BTP is seen as an eastern party then it is likely that western Bhutanese votes would get polarized even more behind PDP.
The other fact that will work against BTP is that PDP has made huge inroads into the east picking up most of the seats in the east, including in the DPT strongholds of Mongar and Pemagatshel.
PDP worked hard in the last five years in the east to overcome any regionalism and loyalty to DPT.
Voters in the east would also be tired of being in the Opposition benches for the last 10 years and so many seats may jump at the chance to be on the side of the ruling party.
Another important factor in the general elections round is that voters don’t necessarily follow party whispers on whom to vote for, and this is more the case with every election as voters make up their own mind.
In the 2018 general elections most of the seats should have been a slam dunk for DNT but it faced closer competition than expected in many seats which meant a chunk of PDP voters in the primary either voted for DPT or did not vote.
It would not be accurate to assume that all DPT voters will back BTP.
One hope for BTP is that the other three parties all get together and gang up with it against PDP.
However, this is more theory than practice. This paper talked to the General Secretaries of all the five parties and none of them expect that to happen and they all said that voters would make up their minds.
The General Secretaries said that impression was gained only because of the joint complaint filed by them against PDP in the last stage but them ganging up is not true.
BTP may even rely on the hurt feelings of DNT to get some support but even in 2018 DNT gave PDP a very rough time and literally removed it from the primary round, but in the final round PDP voters largely backed DNT given the similar vote base in the south, west and parts of the east and center.
BTP could have hugely benefitted if PDP was the incumbent government, but that is not the case and instead PDP is using its 2013-18 track record to get votes.
However, despite the above there are still three X factors that cannot be accounted for and which will give BTP a chance.
The first X factor is that turnout is always much higher in the general round and which way this higher turnout votes often decides the winner.
The second X factor is that while one can make educated guesses about the behavior of DNT, DPT and DTT voters based on the past, one really does not know until the final day. PDP will be in trouble if DNT voters decide to go for a divorce and this so far joint voter base is split.
The third X factor is the upcoming election campaign period, debates etc., and how it goes. It is difficult to beat PDP with facts given its performance and luck while in governance, but in this period if a strong emotional narrative is created against PDP then it could be in trouble.
In the ultimate analysis while PDP is the much stronger horse and far ahead in the race, the power of an elephant awakened also cannot be denied. As always Bhutanese voters in their mysterious but wise ways will decide the final winner.