The last four years of Bhutanese democracy has seen an evolution in the roles of democratic institutions like the Anti Corruption Commission, Judiciary, Media, Election Commission of Bhutan, Royal Audit Authority and the Parliament.
A lot of the evolution would not have been possible without conflict, either with the executive or with each other.
The fact that there has been a powerful and at times overreaching executive, a rush by the democratic institutions to assert their own positions, and finally ideal conditions for conflict has in many ways either strengthened or defined many democratic institutions.
It will be simplistic and sycophantic to ascribe the growth of democratic institutions to the efforts or tolerance of the current government. The role of the executive has in fact been mainly in testing the strengths and limits of the democratic institutions.
If the executive had been a placid one following all the rules and not creating any controversy then Bhutan’s democratic institution would still not have been able as strong as it is today.
The constitutional tax case between the government and the opposition leader not only defined the role of the Opposition leader, but more importantly established the supremacy of the law and in doing so showed the Judiciary as a neutral and independent organization.
Gyelpozhing and may other scams taken up bravely and competently by the ACC has made the powerful accountable and will do wonders for sending out the message that everyone is accountable and that the truth eventually come out. This message sent down the ranks will curb corruption.
The ECB and the RAA have also had clashes with the current government’s political and bureaucratic set up respectively but have held their own and defined themselves as independent institutions.
The Parliament, which was seen as a group of clueless and gridlocked MPs, unable to pass bills is now evolving into a much more sophisticated and powerful institution due to the many lessons learnt. MPs are increasingly realizing that the bills they pass have huge ramifications for the nation and that they have powers and functions beyond just passing bills.
A lot of this has been possible due to the well crafted constitution that defines the positions, roles and powers of democratic powers. In the case of institutions like the ACC, Judiciary, ECB, RAA it also has to do with the heads of the institutions who are experienced, honest and intelligent individuals laying down the foundations of an independent organizational culture.
The Monarchy has also played a tremendously important role not only as the creator of democracy and these democratic institutions but also as the source of unity ensuring that the differences in a democracy doesn’t drive the country apart.
His Majesty the King is also a source of inspiration, stability, positive balance and continuity in the state which is crucial for democratic institutions. Many constitutional heads in doing their job look to His Majesty the King for inspiration not only as the King but also as the symbol and head of the Bhutanese Nation. His Majesty the King apart from his other roles is also mandated by the constitution as the protector and guardian of the constitution in the best interests of the people.
The government so far has a mixed report card. While it is true that so far the government has not gone with hammer and tongs to destroy the ACC, ECB and RAA it has hurt the budding culture of the critical or watchdog press.
As events, situations and characters play out there are still some major challenges for the success of democratic institutions.
The biggest challenge as of now is the situation of the media. The attempts to silence the critical press through economic blockades will have far reaching ramifications on the evolution of Bhutanese democracy. It has the potential to undo the very basic foundations of a democracy based on free speech, free press and the right to criticize one’s own government.
How, the Gyelpozhing case plays out in court will also define the stature of the judiciary, ACC’s role, and the future of corruption in Bhutan.
As the terms of the constitutional heads come to an end it will be an open question on who will be the new appointees especially given the importance of these institutions.
As political parties begin exerting their muscle more there is every danger of constitutional bodies becoming politicized, subservient and pliant towards them.
The evolution so far shows that Bhutanese democracy though not a smooth process ensures everyone learns. It also shows that the first few years are extremely critical in the future growth of Bhutanese democracy and for the sake of Bhutan, democracy should not start and end with the ballot box.
“The strength of the Constitution lies entirely in the determination of each citizen to defend it. Only if every single citizen feels duty bound to do his share in this defense are the constitutional rights secure.”