Opinion: Evolution of Bhutanese Democracy –Part 2
Later in the paper when structure and vision is discussed, other follies of the incumbent government such as their subtle intrusion into the workings of independent and autonomous institutions, micro-managing and fear tactics will be highlighted.
As aforementioned, Bhutan’s democracy was introduced with strong leadership, people’s unflinching support and participation, high hopes and fertile conditions for the success of the new political system. In form the entire system was excellent but the lesson to be learnt here is the importance of the functionary aspects of a democracy- namely the role of the elected leaders.
Democracy in Bhutan could have developed organically, imbibing much of our existing social mores, which had strong roots in communalism, strong family ties, and a sense of unity. But instead the Government wedged itself into an isolated role. This appears to be circumstantial rather than with any particular well crafted objective. The outcome doesn’t appear to be the failure of the system but rather individual personalities or whims that have taken precedence over rationality. Incidental decisions and actions by the leadership of the incumbent government resulted in many undesirable outcomes. To name a few: isolation, ivory tower decision-making, political patronage in government and business and neglecting the views of the common people.
The Government became isolated. Isolation that resulted due to Government not being able to maintain proper institutional linkages and working relationships within a professional and legal framework, guided by democratic norms. This led to increasing conflicts namely with the Judiciary, the Bureaucracy, Civil Society, the Media and other institutions. In other words when you isolate power of decision making you isolate yourself. Individuals played a much larger role towards this outcome. The democratic leaders own perception of their function and extent of their authority did not match people’s aspirations out of democracy. The other institutions also found it invasive to have political masters constantly interfering with their work. The transition to democracy appears to have brought in a democratically elected government but failed to institute democratic governance.
The eagerness of elected leaders to consolidate their position and power took precedence over their role as democratic leaders. This resulted in the lack of transparency. Senior Ministers became very partial towards those who they felt were supporters. Favoritism from the top quickly eroded both the sense of duty as well as the uneven distribution of work and rewards for public servants. Clear lack of trust not only lowered their morale but also alienated many who were genuinely apolitical.
The government became confrontational in its dealings with other institutions and organizations. To put it simply, it became ‘you are either with us or against us’ or any person with a differing view was blatantly accused of doing great disservice to King and Country. Thus opposing any policy initiated by the government was equated to going against democracy. Such accusations frightened people. By now, the leadership’s clear lack of tolerance for alternative views is well known and firmly established. The government is being viewed as autocratic, intolerant and vindictive. In every way democratically legitimate but not a democratic government.
The Tobacco Act of Bhutan and the cabinets’ decision to declare Tuesdays as Pedestrian Day are perfect examples of the elected government’s complete disengagement with the general population. The difficulties and suffering of the people are distant and irrelevant while pandering to a western audience. Petty autocracy is to be found in the PM going publically at loggerheads with a young journalist. This led to an embarrassing situation when the Minister of the MoIC issued a written order banning advertisements from going to the newspaper, ‘The Bhutanese’. When this went public it invited even greater criticism and doubt. Making matters worse the Government then decides to cast all media agencies as being irresponsible and working for certain interest groups and then reduces the media’s advertisement income drastically by cutting down on their budget.
Furthermore the government has also been tied to many questionable people and business deals and several political leaders are being investigated by the ACC. The billion dollar Education City Project, which was also approved by the Cabinet, appears to have a conflict of interest with the PM’s son and nephew as the local representatives for the Foreign Investor. People are already openly questioning the decision taken by the PM. There have also been other misgivings regarding certain business families with close proximity to the PM either through kin or otherwise, gaining unmerited opportunities. The Prime Minister’s disposition towards family and political allies is viewed as not only unethical but of grave danger to Bhutan’s future.
At this point the reader will be of the view that this articles’ very motive is to criticize the government. It might appear to be so. Here I would like to emphasize the gravity of having leaders forge the right path in a young democracy like ours. While the nation has been gifted with an opportunity to build strong institutions and promote the right practices, our leadership inadvertently is taking our country on a precarious journey. The PM and Ministers are indeed very experienced but their experience does not extend to democratic exigencies. In fact it is exactly the opposite. They are used to commanding people, viewing suggestions as threats, hiding information and branding opposition as enemies.
Let me now tell you a little about myself. I am not interested in joining politics nor do I have any affiliation with political parties and politicians. I do in many ways support and acknowledge some of the good things that our government has achieved over the past 4 years. I am aware that some readers will label me as being biased and unpatriotic. If I am accused of being biased, I will wholeheartedly raise my right arm and under oath, confess of being biased towards the Tsa-Wa-Sum.
The headlines on the Gyalpozhing scam read, “No laws have been violated in allotments” and in Kuensel, “OAG finds no merit in ACC allegations.” This is how people lose hope. Ordinary people go to jail everyday for petty crimes, civil servants have lost their jobs for claiming DSA with forged documents, families suffer as loans accumulate and banks seize their properties. Citizens are always held by rules, breaking them comes with a price. People only expect their leaders to be held to the same standards as they themselves are. But when this is not the case people’s faith erodes. In many countries where bad practices have become so entrenched and almost impossible to amend; after a long unavailing struggle, people’s spirit is defeated and leans towards acceptance. Discontentment, Criticism, and Concern is certainly better than Apathy towards reckless governments, violation of laws, gross negligence or misuse of power.
When Politics is viewed as an opportunity for self-advancement, office of profit, seat of power and immunity from the law, the very principal of democracy, good governance and representation is threatened. It is no secret that present day Ministers and MP are taking to business and that rules are being bent everyday in order to favor themselves. Or, that the rich have capitalized on their insecurity by colluding and cooperating with them for immense mutual gain. Corruption takes place blatantly but nothing is being done. Yet everyday common people lose their livelihoods or serve out jail terms for smaller crimes and genuine mistakes.
Lets move on to other equally important issues. The Banks are experiencing a liquidity crisis, fuel prices are up, real-estate market is in a limbo, job opportunities scarce, youth crime increasing, parents no longer trust our schools and corruption and the income gap continue to grow. During such times we need our government to redirect their focus on addressing these important issues.
In 2008 Bhutan had diplomatic relations with 22 countries, today we have with 44 countries such as Cuba, Tonga, and Armenia. The government aggressively campaigned for a non-permanent seat in the 2014-15 UN Security Council. The PM has become the face of Bhutan’s philosophy of GNH. It’s a well known, but less spoken fact that while the elected government aggressively pursues a larger role in the international arena, Bhutan has not only jeopardized our strong relationship with India but all the important issues affecting lives at home remain grossly neglected.
Under the present circumstances there is every danger of setting down a path of discord, fragile institutions, unreliable system of check and balance, misuse of discretionary political powers, and weak rule of law. It could prompt the invitation of a mismanaged economy; poor governance and fractured society; and of course a ruined democratic future. In the past we had benevolent monarchs but with the introduction of democracy Political leaders assumed the patriarchal role of the King. But a politician is limited by ever shortening tenure; opposition in parliament and in society; and insecurity of re-election. Therefore, their priorities, instead of being national and universal as is required by a patriarch, would be skewed in favor of vested interest groups and favorable constituencies. In every sense Bhutan currently is a polyarchy with PM and few senior Ministers exercising unrestricted power over a populace who has not been allowed to practice the democratic process of asserting their will. In this reality, there is dwindling hope of a positive outcome. Necessary change required is farfetched under present circumstances.
Phub Wangdi pursuing his studies in Australia gives his take on Bhutanese democracy so far