The study of democracy and democratic transition would be incomplete without struggle for universal suffrage forming part of it. Starting from Athens in 500 BC to Arab Spring at this millennium, history is replete with sacrifices made by mankind in their claim for right to participate and vote in democratic system as well as in any other forms of government. Revolutions, bloodsheds and loss of lives stand as its testimony. Eventually, periodic election has evolved as one of the important features of any democratic regimes. In stark contrast to democracy elsewhere, Bhutanese democracy is the result of constant nurturing by visionary Monarchs through series of devolution, deconcentration and decentralization processes. To this, no theories of democratic transition can explain the evolution of democracy in Bhutan. Bestowing of adult suffrage to every Bhutanese above eighteen years of age disregard of gender, class and race from the throne in itself indicate the uniqueness of Bhutanese democracy. This has been further propelled by explicit provision under Article 7, Fundamental Rights, section 6 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan that envisages, “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to vote”. Right that has come with corresponding duty.
In 2008, exactly after hundred years of Monarchy, Bhutanese went to polls to elect their representatives to the Parliament, the highest law making body of the Country. Amid keen observers, both from within the country and abroad, the voter turnout with 53% for the National Council and 79% for the National Assembly Elections were applauded far and wide, otherwise a developing country with almost half of the population being illiterate living in rural villages. This impressive participation by the electorates was attributed to His Majesty, the Fourth Druk Gyalpo’s and His Majesty the King, then the Crown Prince’s efforts to encourage people to take part in democratic setup during their nationwide tour to discuss the draft Constitution besides Election Commission of Bhutan doing its part through advocacy.
Five years later, electorates went again to the polls to determine the next crop of their representatives. Against the leaders being unequivocal that the first five years of democracy has taken firm root with all institutions in place, people opted otherwise. Anti-incumbency mood marked both National Council and National Assembly Elections. More worrying was the dwindling figures of voter turnout for the second Parliamentary elections in 2013. With 45.1% and 66% voter turnout for National Council and National Assembly Elections respectively, it was a drop from 53% and 79% correspondingly in 2008 Elections. Observers cited timing of the election as the probable cause for the low percentage of voter turnout. Spring and summer farm works kept farmers engaged in their fields, people in the high altitude areas were already into cordyceps collection while some electorates in the urban centres stayed back citing probable ever-sliding road networks in the monsoon as a difficulty.
In the same vein, recently held by-election of National Assembly representative for Nanong-Shumar Constituency under Pemagatshel Dzongkhag after the resignation of Jigme Yoezer Thinley did not reveal the ideal picture either. During the General Election on 13th July, 2013, 4,753 people of the total 8,278 eligible voters of the said constituency cast their votes. However, the by-election saw only 2, 913 exercising their franchise. Postal ballot also dropped by large margin. Total number of postal ballot received and counted stood at 292, three votes lesser from 295, the losing candidate Pema Wangchuk got during the General Election in which Jigme Yoezer Thinley, the elected candidate received more than 1000 postal ballots. Electorates becoming apathetic are evidenced by their preference to watch television programmes such as English Premier League and others against election results broadcast by Bhutan Broadcasting Service Corporation (BBSC). If people’s exercise of their franchise is the yardstick to measure their participation in democratic process, the success of democracy needs to ponder upon.
The Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, 2008, Article 23, Elections, section 1 stipulates, “Under this Constitution, the general will of the people shall be the basis of government and it shall be expressed through periodic elections”. To this end, elections for both the Parliament and Local Governments are held after every five years. However, lower percentage of voter turnout for second parliamentary election compared to the first needs to be assessed and demands closer look. Comprehensive study by engaging relevant institutions and stake holders would help in drawing an evidenced based conclusion that would aid in designing appropriate approaches and strategies that would create enabling conditions for greater participation in elections by electorates in coming future.
Written on Wednesday, 13th of November, 2013 corresponding to the 11th Day of the First 10th Month of Water Female Snake Year of Bhutanese Lunar Calendar