Reflections on the three elections gone by

With the 2018 polls way behind us, and with three elections on our back now, it is time that we reflect on how an important element of our democracy project – the electoral process, could be fine-tuned as we moved forward. It is my assumption that 10 years is long enough to take stock of what works – and what doesn’t, and shed-off few things while taking off new things. If democracy were a human, it would be in its teens – a formative period where serious reflections – and directions and definitions of one’s life, occur.

I also assume that nothing – at least not the man-made laws, are cast in stone. Democracy and elections are a means towards our greater and long-term aspirations and interests as a nation. They are not ends in themselves. I must also add that what I propose here are neither new nor extraordinary. I am sure in many forums these topics were deliberated and hammered. My intent here is to spark off some fresh discussions in public domain – as debate and discourse are essential lubricants of the engine of democracy.   

While acknowledging the achievements – and the selfless works and sacrifices of many individuals and institutions, let me go straight to two issues that, in my view, warrant some thoughts, scrutiny and analysis. There maybe other issues too but in my opinion, these two need some attention.

The allocation of Parliamentary seats

Currently, all the seats in the National Assembly (NA) are allocated through the first-past-the-post system whereby each candidate, including the party president, must contest and win his or her seat. This winner-takes-all system is not the only way. In fact, it has several undesirable outcomes that could theoretically happen.

First, what if one party wins almost all the seats in the Assembly? A parliament without the Opposition Party may not give the political legitimacy of a parliament. Further, the situation could pose a grave threat to democracy as well as to all State institutions, as the Ruling Party has the votes to do anything. According to Article 35 of the Constitution, a simple majority is enough to move a motion for constitutional amendments – and three-fourth of the total seats to amend it. The Constitution is a sacred, but not an unamendable document, as some people like to believe. With the support of seven more members from the National Council, the Ruling Party could amend the Constitution or even challenge the Royal Prerogatives. While this scenario may seem remote or very unlikely, it is not a theoretical impossibility.

Second, the first-past-the-post system has the drawback that a party president or key members of a party could also fail to win their seats. This happened in 2008 – where a party president lost his seat – and in 2018 where a key member of DNT couldn’t win. While so far it has not caused any major power vacuum, it is possible that we could get to a situation where the president of the winning party loses – and, also, has no capable leader to head the government or key ministries.

Third, this system does not always reflect the popular choice – which is what democracy is all about. In 2008, the People’s Democratic Party won 33% of the popular vote but had only 4.4% of the seats in the National Assembly. On the other hand, this system could also result in a situation whereby a party wins the popular votes but not the majority in terms of seats – and thereby lose the chance to govern. In this case, we could have a government by the minority – which is another theoretical possibility.

The other method of parliamentary seat allocation is through proportional representation. Given the above, our electoral laws need to be reviewed and consider a mix of first-past-the-post and proportional representation system. While retaining the existing 47 seats through majoritarian method, we can reserve few more seats in the National Assembly to reflect the proportional votes. Consequently, if, for example, a total of 6 seats are reserved, the party that wins two-third of the total votes could be allotted 4 additional seats, while the remaining 2 seats would go to the other party – that has won one-third of the total votes. So, even if a party wins all the 47 constituencies – plus has received two-third of the popular votes, it will get 47+4 seats. The two remaining seats from the proportional allocation will go to the other party. This way there will always be the Opposition represented in the Parliament. Besides, the overall popular votes are reflected in the Parliament.

The mix system would also rescue the key party leaders by putting them in the House, even if they fail to win their seats. This way any potential power vacuum is averted.

This system has been in place in many democracies – especially in the Scandinavian countries – which are constitutional monarchies like Bhutan. Obviously, it is not the best system and it has some share of issues. As a matter of fact, there is no such thing as ‘best’ electoral system. Hence, it is worth to think about it and carve one to suit our own needs and realities.

Do we need party workers?

If the post-2008 era has given rise to one significant challenge, it is the breakdown of communal harmony and personal relationships brought about by partisan politics. All over the country – and especially in Eastern Bhutan, villages and communities have been divided along party lines. The us-versus-them not only occurs during the election season, it spills over to the post-election period. In many places, like in my native village, the divide is never cured. In fact, they go on to taint the local elections and cast a dark cloud over the community and country – even after the election season has long past.

While there may be other reasons, and players, in this Great Divide, one group that comes into prominence – especially during the election cycle, is the party workers. Some are affiliated with genuine motives to play a role in this sacred endeavour called democracy. But many are there to earn political favours – or to promote their own candidates by hook or by crook, which at times is scary. If party workers could stick to promoting their own party, it is one thing. However, it quite another story when they engage in mudslinging their opponents, carry out character assassinations, launch physical threats to people they don’t agree with and trade votes. And above all, even drag the sacred institution of monarchy into the murky game – which is totally unacceptable. These have happened in all the three elections.

The question, therefore, is: do we really need the system of party-workers? Why can’t a NA candidate cover the constituency alone, when a National Council candidate cover the whole Dzongkhag? A constituency is a subset of a Dzongkhag, which is much smaller in size. Can the Election Commission hold more common forums, so that there is no need for party workers? Another ugly practice that I totally detest is the door-to-door campaigning. To me, this breeds hypocrisy where people “promise” their votes to all the parties or candidates – and where secrecy of ballot is compromised.

Is it worth tearing ourselves apart?

One of the most important element of national sovereignty for Bhutan is the national unity. Owing to its geo-strategic location and size (let’s not even talk about our ethnic, cultural and religious diversities), there should be no room for systems, or for individuals, that divide people and communities. We cannot prevent people from partisan mentality but we can fix the system. It is in our hands. It is absolutely necessary that we think and remain as one – even more so in the era of Fake News and the explosive social media that can destabilise our nation and our society.

Ironically, we Bhutanese have short-memory – but only to go through the same hell – over and over again every five years. During the bitter election seasons, it is common to hear of political parties and candidates who are totally exasperated by the filth flying around. However, when it is over, the winner is happy to adorn to scarf and the sword and forget the bad times. In a way, it is good. But for long will our social fabric withstand without, one day, tearing everything apart.  

Hopefully, this set of parliamentarians will do something on the above in earnest.

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(This article was also published in Kuensel 19 Jan. 2019)

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