James Carville, the campaign strategist of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 US Presidential campaign, had come up with three slogans for the Democratic party.
The most popular was ‘The economy, stupid,’ followed by “Change versus more of the same” and “Don’t forget health care.”
In a remarkable coincidence, the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) which won 30 of the 47 seats in the 2018 general elections had similar campaign themes.
Its main message to the people was to vote for change. Its main pledge was its healthcare pledges that promised to improve health care in Bhutan.
Its economy pledge was not just to pledge for more economic growth like its other political rivals but, more importantly, to bridge the growing economic inequity conveyed in its slogan of ‘narrowing the gap.’
Of the four political parties in the primary round, the DNT had always been the one which was best prepared and had done its homework over five years and this contributed to its victory.
However, there were also a combination of various factors, some of which were beyond DNT’s control, that also helped seal the deal.
The Bhutanese takes a look at a mix of both to go into the reasons for DNT’s spectacular win and also DPT’s defeat.
The change factor and peoples’ political wisdom
One of the mains reasons for DNT’s victory is that the electorate wanted change and they saw a credible alternative in DNT to the older PDP or DPT option.
The party demonstrated a sound political mind in sensing and appealing to this sentiment of change in the majority of the electorate.
Back in the 2013 elections, it was clear that people wanted change when from the primary round itself the incumbent DPT got only 44.5 percent of the votes and the change vote went to PDP and DNT.
Similarly, in the 2018 primary round the vote for change was very strong as DNT got the highest votes of the four parties.
Now, going all the way back to 2008, a clear and overwhelming number of Bhutanese people were uncomfortable with the idea of electoral democracy and party politics.
It is now clear, more then ever, that the electorate want to keep all political parties on their toes by setting high standards and preventing any political party from accumulating too much power.
This demonstrates a very wise political mindset of ordinary Bhutanese voters that will stand Bhutanese democracy in good stead.
An international study on the issue of political parties and terms in office show that a political party gives it best performance in the first five years and then the level of performance starts dropping with every additional term as complacency seeps in.
It is possible that the Bhutanese people, who over the centuries have acquired great skill and experience at being survivors in a volatile region- innately know this.
Simple electoral math and the PDP factor
One of the most unforgiving subjects in science is math and the political math was always in favour of DNT and against DPT after the primary round.
Though DPT won 22 seats in the primary round and DNT won only 16, the important number was the 9 seats won by PDP and also how a combination of PDP and DNT voters posed a credible threat in 10 of the 22 seats of DPT.
This paper right after the primary round predicted that if DNT can appeal to PDP voters then it can win up to 35 seats.
DNT held on to its 16 seats, won nine of the PDP seats and then won 5 of the 10 seats of DPT, where the DNT and PDP voters could be decisive, to take its tally to an impressive 30 seats. This was when the DNT itself was projecting 25 seats for itself only. The majority of BKP voters who already voted for change would also have voted for DNT.
The turnout in the primary round was already a high of 66.36 percent and so even the around 5 percent increased turnout to 71.46 percent seems to have gone in favor of DNT.
The political math was made possible due to the majority of PDP voters and supporters making a conscious choice in favour of DNT.
According to a senior PDP leader, right after the primary round, DPT candidates approached many winning PDP candidates asking them to join and they even offered multiple ministerial portfolios.
However, even though DNT did not take any PDP candidates, the winning PDP candidates did not take up any DPT offers.
This was biggest indirect support that PDP gave to DNT with some of its winning candidates rejecting even ministerial positions in DPT.
The DPT leadership has continued to deny that the party made any such offers and said that even if offers were made it would be stray offers by individuals and not the party.
This strong indirect support by PDP allowed DNT’s risky gamble of not taking any PDP candidates to succeed.
DPT’s 2008-13 baggage
One of DPT’s main selling points was that it had candidates who had been ministers before or that it had highly experienced MPs, and thus had the experience of governance under its belt.
However, this was also DPT’s biggest Achilles heel and some of their past mistakes came up in the debates with DNT like the rupee crisis, Tobacco Act etc.
PDP had already done half the damage before and also in the primary round contrasting the economic records of DPT and PDP with reference to the rupee crisis, credit crunch, import ban, high loan interest rate, foreign exchange, unemployment and high inflation.
People also would remember the various corruption related issues that haunted DPT’s term and involved some of its biggest leaders during its tenure, though DNT steered clear of mentioning them in the debates.
The above all held DPT back and allowed the wind of change to blow even more strongly in DNT’s direction.
Attacking the Manifesto mistake again
One of the immediate reasons given by DPT for its defeat was that people did not understand its manifesto.
However, this is DPT’s own fault as it spent so much time attacking DNT’s manifesto and pledges that it did not have time to properly reveal its own.
DPT committed this classical mistake back in 2013 when it went after PDP’s manifesto aggressively and ridiculed certain aspects of it.
It backfired on DPT in 2013 as PDP’s manifesto and pledges became the talking point.
The fact that it chose to go for the same strategy against DNT in 2018 shows that its 2013 lessons were not learnt by the party.
The 2018 general election debates mostly hovered around DNT’s manifesto and it looked like while DNT wanted to do something, DPT was not for it without offering credible alternatives.
It also gave the impression that while DNT was running a ‘positive campaign’ offering voters something, DPT was doing the opposite and being a naysayer.
The two manifestos and messaging
The DPT had a 52-page manifesto and the DNT had a 103-page manifesto. The difference did not end there.
The DNT’s manifesto not only was longer but also had more content, that it got in part from its many contact programs over the last five years with various segments of Bhutanese society.
The manifesto sounded like it was in touch with Bhutanese society’s current and long term needs and offered way more in terms of details of how it would execute its programs.
One example of how connected the DNT manifesto was to peoples’ needs was its unique offer to allow regulated foreign maids.
This is one of the biggest headaches for increasingly nuclear families in urban areas and according to a Center for Bhutan Studies (CBS), the main reason why urban couples don’t want to have more children.
Another example was of doing away with the hugely wasteful Saturday classes for teachers and students.
The DPT’s manifesto by comparison looked a hastily put together power point presentation in both content and also design. It failed to connect with a reader unlike the DNT manifesto.
DPT in both its manifesto and messaging talked of self sufficiency but there was precious little in the DPT manifesto and message of how to achieve that self-sufficiency. The only major program was hydropower and DNT had already promised the same too while the previous PDP government had also worked on the same.
In contrast DNT’s message of ‘narrowing the gap’ hit home far better with growing wealth inequality in Bhutanese society as demonstrated by the Gini coefficient increasing rom 0.35 in 2007 to 0.36 in 2012 and then 0.38 in 2017. Its one way of reducing that gap by facilitating better medical services also clicked.
The DPT also talked vaguely of ‘security and sovereignty’ and this was supposed to be its winning line but, here again, every party promised the same and DPT did not offer any details on what it would be doing differently or if it would do anything at all.
The 19 July convention
It is now also clear that DPT’s highly antagonistic convention held on 19 July 2013 and some of the harsh words spoken there have deeply damaged the image of the party in the eyes of the majority of the Bhutanese people.
What has not helped DPT is that it has not yet publicly acknowledged the mistakes made on that day and sought forgiveness, but has moved on as if nothing ever happened.
This unresolved issue has allowed its political rivals to keep using the issue against DPT, and while DPT may have a loyal base in parts of eastern Bhutan, they will not be enough to win a general election to form the government.
This is the primary reason why DPT had a hard time finding good candidates, why eligible and winnable PDP candidates did not join DPT after the primary round and why many DPT supporters deserted the party after 2013.
What also did not help was new tapes and messages coming out during the 2018 election race with some people going even further.
The blunting of the sympathy factor
One of DPT’s foundational strengths that has not been talked about much is its ability to attract the ‘sympathy’ or ‘nyamchung party’ vote.
Prior to the 2008 polls the PDP and DPT were founded by an equally elite set of leaders, some of whom were even related to each other, with the only difference being that they were in different parties.
However, right from 2008, the DPT built up the image of the party as being of the ‘nymachung people,’ and in doing so appealed to a deep Bhutanese sense of natural justice of favoring the underdog.
This was one of the powerful factors that decimated PDP to two seats in 2008 and also allowed DPT to hold onto 15 seats in 2013.
This is the same factor that allowed DPT to portray itself as a ‘wronged martyr’ after the 2013 polls. This was one of the factors that worked against PDP and for DPT in the 2018 primary round.
However, this factor got completely blunted against DNT a new party with leaders who got a stronger claim to the ‘nyamchung’ tag.
For DPT to evolve and grow as a party, it must give up this cloak of martyrdom of a wronged political party and accept that it has committed mistakes and is responsible for its own defeats.
Otherwise, as long as it has that cloak on, it will not see its own flaws but instead it will blame others for its own misfortunes. This, overtime, will only generate more frustration within the party and lead to more mistakes.
The bulk of PDP supporters and voters did not stay away from DPT due to any old political grudges or any indication from the PDP party, but it is this DPT’s cloak of martyrdom and refusal to accept its mistakes that they were most apprehensive about.
The Party Leaders
It is said that voters choose parties in the primary round and candidates in the general election round.
However, this theory has been proven wrong over and over again as voters still vote for the party even in the general round.
This is why, more often than not, ‘stronger’ and more qualified candidates are regularly beaten by even young graduates.
In such an electoral setting, the role of the party president becomes all the more important.
In that sense the DNT party president was a far more effective communicator and connected better than any of the other party presidents.
The DNT President seemed more set on winning and he immediately clicked with the local issues, and was comfortable with the local culture and language. It is not a surprise that EVM votes went overwhelmingly in favour of DNT as the DNT President managed to connect with the rural people all over the country.
The DPT was a clear winner of the social media game from 2013-18 and it would have had a definite impact on primary round and especially the postal voters who are the most active on social media.
However, this scenario changed after the primary round as both PDP and DNT supporters started going after DPT in the social media.
In effect DPT’s great under cover strength from 2013-18 worked against it in the final stages of the general election as its political rivals used the same formula against it.