By Sonam Ongmo
On Saturday the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan went to the polls and delivered a surprise outcome. In what was an upset to the dominant and strong ruling party, Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), the People’s Democratic Party, which previously held a mere two seats, secured 32 seats leaving the DPT with only 15.
This is the nation’s second democratic election. The first one was held five years ago in 2008. During that time the DPT secured a landslide victory.
Bhutan is probably the first kingdom in the world in which democracy was handed to its people. The peaceful transition from a 100 year rule of monarchs to parliamentary democracy was made possible when the Fourth King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, voluntarily stepped down to put his son, then only in his 20s onto the throne and hand power to the people.
The first elections took place peacefully with several international agencies observing the outcome.
While the second elections went smoothly the days preceding were rocked by accusations that India may have been interfering in determining the results of the elections of this small landlocked and geographically fragile country. Several newspaper articles, timed just before the elections, complained of Bhutan’s growing relations with China. The growing relations for India were a handshake and side meeting that the ex Prime Minister of Bhutan held with Premier Wen Jiabao at the Rio Summit and a small purchase of 15 Chinese buses for the country’s public transportation system.
Following the articles, India revoked several subsidies namely on household cooking gas, fuel, kerosene and excise duty refunds.
This reaction, however, might have been fueled partially by the Bhutanese themselves, some who have been unhappy with the old government’s performance. The criticisms were not just confined to Indo-Bhutan relations, but also to corruption, nepotism and control of press freedom. Accusations were rife with each party blaming the other for playing the Indians.
All this and the nature of the Indian articles, alarmingly titled “Bhutan’s road to democracy leads to China” by the Times of India, bringing up last year’s issue a week before Bhutan’s election, not only had the Bhutanese upset, but also had Indian experts on Indo-Bhutan relations questioning it.
“If this happened without planning, we need to look at our handling of foreign policy,” former ambassador to Bhutan, Pavan Verma, said to the Times of India. “But if this was planned, this was certainly not the time to do it. Bhutan is a special neighbour and in the middle of elections. This should have been a result of high level consultations,” he told them.
Did India’s ill-timed decision really influence voters? Whether it did or didn’t we certainly know that it has exposed the vulnerability of the Bhutanese to a foreign influence over their elections.
But with roles reversed now, the Bhutanese think this is an opportunity for a fresh start to build upon and strengthen Bhutan’s fledgling five-year democracy. And this came with the blessings of the outgoing Prime Minister who graciously accepted the outcome with this message on Facebook: “ DPT offers its heartfelt Tashi Delek to the President and the People’s Democratic Party for having won the mandate of the people to form the second democratically elected government. We look forward to working with them in parliament.”
Bhutan who has recently gained much attention in the international arena for its development philosophy of Gross National Happiness has set yet another example of how it is implemented.