Churn in the Neighbourhood: Bhutan | New PM, new challenges

Dr Lotay Tshering, whose party has won the elections, wants to reduce dependence on hydroelectricity, a sector in which India is heavily invested. With China lurking, an old relationship enters a crucial phase

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi | Updated: October 29, 2018 1:50:23 am
Bhutan, express explained, Bhutan poll, Bhutan parliamentary elections, social media battles, bhutan news, indian express Dr Lotay Tshering, a surgeon and urologist by training, is the leader of the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), Bhutan’s new ruling party.

Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), or Bhutan United Party, has emerged the winner in the final round of parliamentary elections in Bhutan, votes for which were cast on October 18. These parliamentary elections were the third since Bhutan transitioned to a constitutional monarchy 10 years ago.

Bhutan has a two-round election system, much like France. In the first round held in September, all four registered political parties contested, and the incumbent People’s Democratic Party (PDP) led by Tshering Tobgay finished third. The final round this month saw a contest between the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), or Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party, and the DNT.

The DNT first contested in 2013 and finished third in the first round. This time, it has won 30 seats in the National Assembly, the 47-seat elected lower House of Bhutan’s Parliament. The DPT has won 17 seats.

Bhutan’s three elections so far have produced three different winners. The DPT won in 2008, and PDP in 2013.

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Centre-Left choice

DNT is headed by Dr Lotay Tshering, a 50-year-old urologist who has an MBBS from Dhaka University, and has specialised in general surgery. He also has an MBA from Canberra University. The Prime Minister-elect has worked at Thimphu’s national referral hospital, the main hospital in the country, as a consultant surgeon and urologist.

DNT’s slogan, “Narrowing the Gap” between the rich and the poor, has socialist overtones. Its logo is peach blossom (khamsing meto), a plant identified with social democratic principles, and which signifies fresh hope, a new life and new beginning. Its 103-page manifesto promises to address inequality in income and access to services and opportunities in health, education and other areas.

These ideas from the relatively new party have clearly resonated with voters after the DPT and PDP governments of Prime Ministers Jigme Thinley (2008-13) and Thsering Tobgay (2013-18). Inequality is a major issue in Bhutan — some experts have estimated that incomes in the mining sector, for example, could be almost 17,000 times the national average.

Poll, votes, voters

Seventy-one per cent — about 3,14,000 — of the over 4,38,000 registered voters in the nation of about 7,50,000 people voted in the final round. The turnout was higher than the 66.36% in the primary round and the 66.1% in 2013, indicating rising voter awareness and stronger efforts by the country’s Election Commission. The DNT got 55% of the vote.

Postal votes numbered about 1.14 lakh — an enormous 36% of the total — and had a decisive influence on the outcome. Some observers have pointed out that the bulk of the postal ballots were cast by government servants who live in Thimphu (away from their home constituencies), and it is interesting that they chose the newbie DNT.

Bhutanese media have referred to civil servants as the “forty-eighth constituency”.

Among the voters, there were more women (about 1.59 lakh) than men (1.54 lakh). The number of women in the National Assembly is seven, more than double the three women MPs that the 2013 elections sent. The DNT has five women MPs; the DPT two.

Social media battles

A lot of the campaign took place on social media, mainly Facebook (which has about 4,00,000 users in Bhutan) and WeChat. There was some mudslinging, and the Election Commission responded with fines, penalties, and takedown requests. In the primary round, 15 Facebook posts by party supporters were found to be in breach of social media and election laws; in the final round, there were 28 such posts, 18 of which could not be removed.

Some audio clips dragged Bhutan’s revered monarchy into the heat and dust of the campaign. This was seen as a violation of the Constitution — Article 2, Section 15 says that the person of the Druk Gyalpo, i.e., Monarch, “shall be sacrosanct”, and Art 8, Sec 11 makes it “the duty and responsibility” of “every person… to respect and abide by the provisions of this Constitution”. The country’s official newspaper, Kuensel, wrote in an editorial: “To drag in the institution of monarchy in dirty divisive politicking is undemocratic and profane. As a tense society strides through a transition, no political parties and their workers should have the audacity to malign the monarchy, the nation’s symbol of unity.”

Economy, India, China

Bhutan is growing fast (8% in 2017), but also has high youth unemployment and external debt. In 2017, its debt was 108.6% of its GDP; as per World Bank figures from that year, 80% of the country’s external public debt (equal to 77% of GDP) stems from loans for hydropower projects, mostly financed by India. New Delhi is also the largest buyer of Bhutanese hydropower, a sector that makes up 14% of the GDP and 27% of the government’s revenue. The DNT wants to diversify the economy and reduce its reliance on hydroelectricity.

Bhutan also depends on subsidised gas and kerosene from India, and the DPT government paid the price when India decided to withdraw the subsidies just before the elections of 2013, in response to then Prime Minister Jigme Thinley’s perceived outreach to China. The DNT has suggested the introduction of biogas and electric cars.

Dr Tshering’s party also wants to incentivise agriculture, make teaching a lucrative profession, and increase public-sector wages. Healthcare is a key focus area for the PM-elect.

While foreign policy did not figure in the campaign, India has been the elephant in the room whenever parties have talked about the economic situation and public debt.

India provides budgetary support to Bhutan’s development and backs it against Chinese expansionism. This was displayed during the two-and-a-half-month Doklam standoff last year. In the Bhutanese scheme, the PM concerns himself with the day-to-day functioning of the country, while the monarchy has the decisive say in matters of national security and foreign policy. It is in New Delhi’s interest to have the incoming PM aligned with his predecessor and the monarchy.

Earlier this year, Beijing sent a top official, equivalent to the Foreign Secretary, to open a channel for dialogue with Thimphu. Some Indian apprehensions notwithstanding, Bhutan’s young democracy has been fast finding a voice in its dealings with other countries. And while traditional and mainstream media in Thimphu have been restrained, there have been murmurs in Bhutanese social media over a perceived “Indian veto” on which countries can open embassies in Thimphu, or how and to what extent Bhutan should engage with the world. China does not yet have an embassy in Bhutan’s capital.

For India, the challenge is to align with the rising expectations of an impatient people who are seemingly no longer satisfied by the philosophy of “Gross National Happiness” as concrete economic challenges of a credit crunch, high loan interest rates, unemployment and high inflation loom. Many in Bhutan feel that the country’s traditional goodwill towards India should now be linked to enhanced Indian generosity in providing it with development support.

In his authoritative The History of Bhutan (2013), the scholar Karma Phuntsho has likened his country’s relationship with India to “that of successful daughter to a possessive mother”. The daughter has “come of age, found her independent voice and life… but the mother finds it difficult to let her go”. And on the relationship with China, writes Phuntsho, “Bhutan remains cautious, like a shy daughter influenced by her mother to keep away from an unworthy suitor”.

The question is, for how long?

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