National Council of Bhutan (File picture)

The increasingly important role of the National Council over the last 15 years

The National Council (NC) of Bhutan was institutionalized in 2008 under the Article 11 of the Constitution of Bhutan with its first twenty-five members. The Upper House has played an important role in Bhutanese democracy and legislation since then.

How NC came to be is historical and one of the most important achievement of the country. The former Deputy Chairperson of National Council from 2013-2018, Tshering Dorji, shared that the establishment of National Council was very special.

“Besides, the historic deliberation of the Constitution- the country’s supreme law and other important legislations that had to be enacted to establish key institutions in the new democratic era, one of the most memorable achievements was the establishment of the National Council, itself. Unlike the National Assembly, the House of National Council did not exist in the past, and it was established for the first time in 2008 with the introduction of Bicameral Parliamentary Democracy.”

First and Second Terms

As the Upper House was established, during its first term, National Council played a very important role. The current Chairperson, Tashi Dorji shared that during the first term, the House played the role of Check and Balance.

“With only two parties, Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) out of which, from the 47 seats, only two seats were occupied by the opposition party. So, in the interest of the nation, NC took the role of Check and Balance, not necessarily the role of opposition party, but whenever required, it played a very important role,” Tashi Dorji said.

Dasho Sonam Kinga, who served as the Deputy Chairperson and Chairperson of NC from 2008-2013 and 2013-2018 respectively, agreed sharing that it took the role of check and balance.

“Working as a team, we were able to define the National Council as a robust check and balance institution in democratic governance. Besides fulfilling its primary mandate of legislation and review of policies, the signature presence of NC came to be defined as a House with vital check and balance function,” Dasho added.

“In terms of legislation, we had the honour of adopting the Constitution along with the National Assembly and passing many laws which laid the foundation of our democracy. The Election Act, National Assembly Act, National Council Act, Local Government Act and Civil Service Act are a few examples,” he added.

Tshering Dorji shared that NC was taken forward in its second term.

He said, “The amazing teamwork of the first National Council not only successfully established the House of Review from the scratch, but also built a strong culture of how a Parliament ought to function embracing the best practices and norms so that the deliberations were carried out in a transparent, objective and democratic manner based on research and evidence rather than hearsay and partisan manner. The second batch of the National Council had taken the House forward by nurturing and deepening the good systems and practices which were already established.”

Having served for a decade, Dasho Sonam Kinga said that NC was essential in preventing political expediencies from taking precedence over the Constitution’s supremacy.

Dasho said, “NC played a critical role in ensuring that the primacy of the Constitution was not undermined by prioritizing political exigencies. For example, the Constitutionality of proposal for state-funding of Political Parties and continuity of Constituency Development Grant were challenged. NC also intervened when the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs instead of the Election Commission was about to conduct Local Government Elections in 2009 based on GYT and DYT Acts which were repealed by the Constitution. This eventually led to the review and enactment of the Local Government Act paving the way for the first LG elections under the guidance of His Majesty The King. NC also challenged the introduction of Land Bill whose intent and purpose fundamentally undermined Constitutionally defined prerogatives of the State.”

Having served two terms, Tshering Dorji pointed out the different roles NC played.

“In the first 10 years, I think the National Council was able to conduct its function in strict adherence to the Constitution and the National Council Act. By ensuring that the rule of law was upheld, reviewing the bills and policies objectively, highlighting important issues pertaining to the interest of the people and nation, providing effective checks and balances to the government, and most importantly listening to the people and staying grounded, the National Council was able to create a positive impact in strengthening democracy in its formative years. As a result, it has created an abiding image of the National Council in the minds of the people as an apolitical House of Review, a body different from that of the opposition party, a body that calls for greater wisdom and knowledge for the country and people as a whole going beyond the narrow interests of individual constituencies,” he said.

Tshering said much of it also depends not only on the intellectual competencies of the elected members, but also on the professional integrity and experience that comes with age, which is quite evident from the fact that people have come to appreciate and accept the requirement of at least 10-year experience for a candidate to stand for the National Council election this time.

“The first 10 years in the National Council provided a perfect opportunity to test out almost all its roles and when His Majesty The King commanded His appreciation, specifically to the National Council, in terms of how the NC carried out its role during the last session of the second Parliament, it was deeply humbling to know that the NC had lived up to His Majesty’s expectations,” he added.

Third Term

The third term of the Upper House, which lasted during the pandemic, was substantially different from the first ten years. The transition from the first and second terms to the third term was fairly smooth, and unlike the previous NC elections, incumbent members were allowed to run again in the third term election without retiring.

According to Chairperson Tashi Dorji, the third term, which ran from 2018 to 2023, was unique from the others.  “We served during the pandemic, and the Lower House and the Upper House worked together in the interest of the nation, without much tussle between the Houses.”

One of the most notable revisions, according to the NC Chairperson, was the Tobacco Act, which caused quite a stir. The Tobacco Act was changed to allow people to sell tobacco, which was previously illegal in the nation, out of concern for the widespread smuggling operations that may unavoidably risk bringing in the virus and harming the people.

The country is currently undergoing a significant development, which makes the present term, the third term, even more remarkable. He concurred that transformation is among the most crucial events to take place. He mentioned that the Gyalsung Act, the Civil Liability Bill, and the Civil Service Reform Bill were three of the most significant laws passed.

In the Civil Service Reform Bill debate the NC ensured that OAG did not take in additional judicial like powers.

According to Dasho Sonam Kinga, while the public perception is that the NC functions only during its formal sessions, it has been able to establish a robust committee system whose functions and activities are synced for review, guidance and also criticism with the regular and structured plenary sessions.

“Currently, there has been a notable focus of National Council on matters of national concerns transcending the specifics of constituency matters which is an admirable trend, and on specific development issues, which are within the purview of the government, NC created interface with the government such as in the mechanism of Budget discussion and Five-Year Plans so that specific constituency aspirations or grievances can be addressed,” he added.

NC looks at issues impacting the security, sovereignty, or interests of the county that needs to be brought to the attention of the Druk Gyalpo, the Prime Minister, and the National Assembly in addition to developing and examining Bhutanese legislation.

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