The council election

Election for the second term of the National Council serving as upper house of Bhutan’s parliament is set to motion, which is just a day ahead. The election commission of Bhutan has fielded the required staff and equipment in all constituencies of all 20 districts. 

The ground is ready to make a fair and free election, although many voters do not understand what is fair election and what makes a poll free.

People in Bhutan are traveling to their districts and hometowns where their census is registered. 4651 polling officials are dispatched to 850 polling stations across the country, some as remote as two or three days trek from the road head.

Apolitical voting
National Council is apolitical in its making, in the sense it is not represented by political parties. The candidates are said to be non-affiliated to any political parties and have no political mandates or commitments. Some of the candidates made clear to the voters during their first meeting that they had not come to make promises of road or water supply or a bridge for the village. “The National Council is all about reviewing laws to keep people and country peaceful,” said Ganesh Ghimirey, a NC candidate from Samtse.

NC candidates from Samtse

Bhutanese voters in the rural hinterlands and far-flung villages are too ignorant to make distinction between a political candidate and non-political one. Many such electorates saw a faint line between the voting for National Assembly and National Council in the first election and that notion rang this time too. Some of them have definitely inclined to make improvements of the facilities and services by the candidates after they get elected.

Although the candidates embarked on the campaign by visiting village to village and doors to doors, they are not sure of what they have in store for the constituencies, which they are going to represent. Twenty-seven year old Novin Darlami is much less known in the gewog of his constituency, but his father, Bal Bahadur’s name in Tsirang has helped him to get introduced and even chosen for the candidate.

In response to media, voters in some districts have expressed their dilemma over the choice of candidate (as in Samdrupjongkhar) for they are not familiar with the experience and qualifications of candidates. It appears that people are going to polling station with limited knowledge about some of the candidates, just on the basis of hearsay story about them.

The village meeting or zomdu
Most candidates have lived outside their hometown or the constituencies for a long period of time and are not the familiar old faces to villagers. The way these aspirants could meet their voters is the village meeting or zomdu, which is one time event to see faces together. This one-time event of zomdu is not enough time to make the candidates familiar to the constituencies. There was relatively a poor turn out of the villagers in Bartsham zomdu in Trashigang where Dr. Sonam Kinga is the lone candidate. It is attributed to the plantation season. The “yes” or “no” vote in the zomdu is a sort of preliminary polls that has magical spell on the candidates, rather than a consistent way of developing consensus. In many cases, peasant farmers just escaped from their daily chores of tending farms and animals to raise hands in the meeting.

It is again an unintentional number game.

Two female candidates in Tsirang and Chhuka announced their candidacy only in the last hour and the community meeting in villages and towns served the only way to make themselves familiar. The decision making hours are too critical for both voters and contestants. In the districts with a lone candidate to contest (like Dagana), the community meeting through out the constituency is not felt key to campaigning given his/her unanimous election.

The common forum

Debate session in Tsirang(Courtesy: BBS)

It is interesting way to express the bonafide and genuine nature of aspiration to become a parliament member through the common forum in which all the contestants are put to a lukewarm litmus test. The national broadcaster (BBS) made attempts to uncover as many attributes and qualities of the candidates as possible through way of debating and interacting both among the candidates and with the voters. Here again, the time factor is too limiting for the candidates to position themselves better. The question answer session is too short for each candidate to make things clear to voters of such nascent democracy. However, broadcasting of common forums in television gave opportunity to voters outside the constituencies for orienting their franchise and comment on social media, expressing their opinions.

The language of expression
Dzongkha, the national language is certainly the official etiquette to express in such formal meetings as zomdu or common forum. News stories fed by the Kuensel suggest that the candidates speak fluent Dzongkha and express well even if they are Lhotshamps or Sarchhops. But the point is whether the electorates could make out any meaning on what they spoke or really understand the functioning of NC in the parliament. Spoken Dzongkha alone is not the best option to make people understand about the making of parliament members, their roles in the working of democracy, framing of all the new laws and enacting national acts, and ensuring the democracy is not jeopardized.  It is equally challenging to the candidate themselves to use the correct diction in Dzongkha, which does not have a lot of vocabulary for the election, parliamentary process, for solving legal issues and interpretation of the constitution.

Chhatrapati Phuyel from Dorokha, Ganesh Ghimirey from Samtse, Nandalal Dhakal from Denchukha, Novin Darlami and Shyam Basnet from Tsirang, Raghupati Suberi from Sarpang are few to count on who need extra hours of familiarization and interpretation of what they speak in Dzongkha during the common forums and community meetings. Ganesh and Novin seemed to have done that fairly taking time to reach out to the voters in their respective areas, speaking Nepali, the mother-tongue of Lhotshampa people.

In the eastern districts of Samdrupjongkhar, Trashigang, Pemagatshel, Trashiyangtse the candidates quickly switched to Sarchhopkha for the informal discussions with individual voters, mostly the housewives and elders.

The manifesto written in Dzongkha and English distributed by the candidates bear little meaning to the uneducated villagers when sufficient explanation is not provided at the face-to-face meeting.

With very few informational material available and non-existence of library or other knowledge-building resources, limited access to diversified educational materials; the Bhutanese voters are least expected to comprehend simply on the basis of their adult literacy classes.

A faint voice was raised in Samtse on the issue of use of local language for the purpose of campaigning and increasing political literacy. People expressed that the manifesto and other printed brochures should have been written in Nepali too, so that they could better understand.

It is something that people are trying to use the fundamental rights of getting information on the language that they speak best or the right to be educated in their mother-tongue. The NC candidates should vehemently speak up, if they win, to give the people freedom of using their mother-tongue, whenever they face challenge to understand matter of their concern or of national importance.

Promises to keep
Although not politically colored, the NC candidates did have promises to speak for motivating the potential voters.  NC candidates in Wangduephodrang made promises to bridge the gap between poor and rich, by bringing power tillers to the gewog, rebuilding the razed Wangduephodrang dzong and the like. But they also promised appropriate laws and policies to turn things into reality.

Sonam Dorji of Dagana enlisted youth employment, addressing rural-urban migration, reviewing tax, economic development, and a good agricultural policy as his priority for Dagana. Worth mentioning, he had promised to make Dagana a tourist destination when he campaigned for the NC seat five years ago.

The Trongsa candidates also chalked out their priorities; solving youth unemployment, reviewing local government act and promoting tourism.

Both in Tsirang and Samtse, the Lhotsampa candidates are making the most representation and some of them have already vouched for taking care of the census drop out issue. They have promised to make themselves a connecting link between the government and the grass-root people.

Whether or not these promises are kept with sincerity, the probable winning candidates have to be more advocating and steering up the policies to right direction so that welfare of the public is ensured. Be it the micro-enterprise incentive or curbing the youth unemployment, whether it is construction of bridge or opening an area for tourism, Bhutanese parliamentarians need to make them more open and vocal in addressing the issues lying unattended for decades and empower people to take advantage of the democracy exercising their franchise.

The future
The future of Bhutanese democracy lies in the hands of these novice candidates vying for seats in parliament. It is the way to gain more maturity and increase the bargaining power without making themselves as ‘yes men’.

They should not be bound to certain  ‘Do’s and ‘Don’t’s when it comes to matter of national importance impacting the lives of citizens. Once elected, the council members should go back to their constituencies once again to review their to-do list and listen to the most marginalized section of the constituency. They must muster up the courage to speak genuinely and within the framework of the constitution even if that goes against the interest of the bosses.