Strengthening Bhutan’s democratic culture

The generous entitlements and hikes that Parliamentarians heaped on themselves have provoked much discussion and debate in various forums.

One of the main discussion points is the apparent frustration felt by voters – who feel that their role in the democratic process is relevant only once every five years when they have to press the button at the polling stations. There is a growing feeling that once that stage has passed – they are largely ignored by any government that is comfortable and snug in power.

There is also a sense of cynicism that while different political parties may criticize each other when out of power, however, there is no guarantee that they would not do the exact same things that they had opposed, or become worse when in power.

Bhutan’s two-party system, while encouraging political stability, does not encourage the dissolution or removal of governments who are highly unpopular or have lost the moral mandate.

However, Bhutan is not alone as even countries, like USA and UK, have a largely similar strong political set up, but politicians in these countries, while not being perfect, are more sensitive and responsive to public opinion than our MPs.

The difference is that Bhutan is a still a comparatively young democracy and is still in the process of developing a democratic culture that ensures that politicians and other institutions behave in a democratic fashion and are more sensitive to the needs of the people.

A democratic culture is very important for a young democracy like Bhutan because even if a country has all the democratic institutions in place, its democracy can still be incomplete or even fail in the absence of a democratic culture.

A good example would be the media, which while being a democratic institution can only perform its role fully if the democratic culture allows it to criticize government decisions without fear of retribution.

Bhutan’s democratic culture once developed will not only strengthen democracy but the country as a whole.

There are many ingredients to having such a culture, but the most important of all, is an aware, responsive and active citizenry. In Bhutan’s context – this does not mean hitting  the streets or closing down shops, but it would mean expressing one’s thoughts, lobbying with one’s MPs, creating public discussions forums, giving feedback, taking legal action, etc.

In short, it is letting politicians and agencies know one’s feelings on issues, what they should do about and applying enough democratic pressure to make them do the right things. If politicians and others don’t respond or do the wrong things then they should realize that there is a political price or even a legal price in more serious matters.

Politicians- being political animals by nature – will respond to sustained and active role of citizens particularly if it can affect their re-election prospects, popularity or a bright future political career. Citizens should also be ready to exact a heavy political price.

Another important ingredient is a free and active press that can fearlessly take up issues of public interest and does not face censorship or engage in self-censorship.

One key aspect of such a culture is bringing about a change in the very mindset of the people. If the people, themselves, are thin skinned, unreceptive to free and frank discussion, unreceptive to criticism, petty and vindictive then they have no right to expect any better of their leaders, chosen among themselves.

In all of this, the government of the day has an absolutely crucial role to encourage such a democratic culture which they may find strange and even difficult in the short run, but will bear rich dividends in the long run. The government of the day must not resort to discouraging reasonable public opinion and debates – it must be tolerant of a critical and noisy press and all other democratic institutions.

The recent developments, so far, show some signs of encouragement, like the decision of the National Council to defer its hike in the face of popular public opinion.

Election time is not the ‘be all and end all’ of a democracy, but it is only the process of selecting a government. Citizens still have full rights to be governed the way they want, express their feelings fearlessly, and get the policies and decisions they feel that they deserve. This can only happen with a strong, fearless, mature, tolerant and free democratic culture which needs to start in every one of us first.

“The first duty of a man is to think for himself”    

José Martí

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