While the National Council elections slated in April 2013 may not generate the same level of enthusiasm as the National Assembly elections, it has established itself as an important Parliamentary institution.
Soon after the euphoric elections results of March 2008 for the ruling government, there were concerns expressed not only on the small size of the opposition party but also the lack of legislative balance.
At the same time there was some early confusion on the role of the NC which consisted of members who were elected by the people but were yet apolitical and had no say in the running of the government.
Some early doomsayers predicted that the NC was an irrelevant house and it was not clear how they could contribute to the democratic process.
However, the NC soon started finding its own footing. Firstly in the absence of a strong opposition party the NC took on the role of providing legislative check and balance on the government.
This check and balance from the NC was all the more important as it was not as a political opposition but an apolitical house of review that improved the technical and constitutional aspects of many laws.
Generally NC MPs were also found to be doing more research and seemed more prepared.
The NC uncovered and prevented controversial moves like party funding and also ensured that the autonomy of many institutions like the RCSC, ACC and RBP were largely preserved.
However, there was no smooth sailing, especially in the beginning, as both the NC and the National Assembly entered into frequent deadlocks over important legislations with the notable one being the Local Government Act.
As typical in many cases the ruling government wanted administrative convenience and better control while the NC wanted to go strictly by the laws or the constitution. There were also differences in opinion on the interpretation of the constitution.
Soon, openly and secretly, there were allegations from the ruling government that the NC was behaving like an opposition party. The NC countered back saying that it was an apolitical house fulfilling its constitutional mandate.
However, this period was soon over as committees and members from both houses ensured there were better consultations to avoid time consuming deadlocks.
Though the ruling government will disagree, there was soon a growing feeling that the executive backed by a strong majority in Parliament, experienced ministers and a strong Prime Minister were becoming too powerful. This was especially in an environment where democracy was still new and people were not as vocal. This unchecked power along with a style of governance that was reminiscent of an earlier era, growing intolerance of criticism and lack of democratic accountability was seen by many as not being in the best interests of a healthy Bhutanese democracy.
Apart from a minuscule opposition party, struggling media, and few constitutional bodies there was no real check on an increasingly muscular executive.
The NC here played an important role in providing an apolitical check and balance on the government and ensuring that the laws passed did not unduly favor any one side. It was also at these times that the important role of the NC as an apolitical house of review became most apparent.
One exceptional circumstance was a Draft Land Bill of the government that gave Land Kidu powers to the cabinet and also replaced the National Land Commission members including the Gyalpoi Zimpon with ministers.
This was also in the context of some members of the ruling government and party involved in several questionable land transactions.
This bill, if passed, would not only have violated the constitution but also created centralization of powers and conflict of interest.
In addition to the uproar from ordinary citizens nearly all NC members made it clear that they would oppose the bill if it was introduced. This was a key factor leading to the withdrawal of the bill.
Apart from legislative oversight the NC started exploring its other role of upholding public interest.
An example is the NC’s rupee report which does not mince words and puts the blame squarely on the RMA and the Finance Ministry for failing to prevent and deal with the crisis.
Similarly the NC’s mining report also asked the government to ensure better monitoring and regulation of the sector.
The NC has also, from time to time, questioned ministers and other senior executive figures in the house on important national issues.
Recent development whereby NC MP’s had to forego up to Nu 600,000 in benefits due to some vagaries in the law, if not corrected, is not good for the long term future of the NC as potentially good candidates may stay away. However, the willingness of NC MP’s to forego those benefits and re-contest demonstrates their commitment.
There is also growing concern of the politicization of the NC in the long term, especially given its important role, which must be prevented. ECB must pull out all stops to insure that party politics has no sway on the NC elections.
Ultimately Bhutanese citizens have to take the NC elections seriously for the sake of quality laws, good governance, a healthy parliamentary system and a strong democracy.