Right to choose

The Chief Election Commissioner has released a pamphlet “… to share a few concerns of the Election Commission and clarify certain issues”

The Election Commission requests all of us to forward and redistribute their pamphlet to other Bhutanese.

 


 

 

Opposing corruption

“guardian” entered three comments on my last post. All three were on corruption.

In the first comment, “guardian” complained that I hadn’t given any attention to this important issue:

OL simply needs to get his priorities right. When there are so many cases of corruption in the country, OL has not even raised his voice once. I suspect that somehow if he does that, he will find more PDP supporters who are behind all these corrupt practices.

In the second comment, “guardian” laments that no one seems to be doing any thing about the malaise spreading through our society:

Right now the most serious problem which is leading to poor governance is corruption which seems to have pervaded every section of Bhutanese society. Sadly, though, it was the government which kept on stating that corruption in Bhutan was at manageable levels, only to find out now, that it is a tough nut to crack.

Even the ACC it seems is not able to cope with the scale of corruption in the country.

And in the third comment, “guardian” persuades the opposition party to challenge the government:

Ol does not need to do anything, there is enough evidence as per the ACC reports that there is rampant corruption. OL just needs to tell the DPT government that he is worried about corruption and ask the ruling government to do something about it.

The fact that he is not even blogging about it very worrying indeed. Don’t you agree with me!

But it’s not just these three comments. “guardian” has left a string of comments, in many of my posts, all calling for opposition to corruption in Bhutan. And it’s not just “guardian”. Other readers have also voiced various concerns and objections to corruption.

Corruption is real. Corruption is rising. And, left unchecked, corruption could get dangerously pervasive. So we must act against it, individually and collectively. Otherwise this scourge will become irreversibly entrenched in our society.

But how do we fight? How do we fulfill our constitutional duty to “… uphold justice and to act against corruption”?

We can file reports – even confidential ones – to the Anticorruption Commission. We can go to the press. And we can discuss this important issue here, in this blog.

So if you know of any instances of corruption I urge you to report them to ACC. I encourage you to talk to the media. And I welcome you to discuss them here. This issue is important for the health and the future of our country. So let’s discuss it. And let’s do so constructively and responsibly, without engaging in slander, libel or malicious gossip.

On my part, I’ll listen and I’ll learn. And I’ll raise your concerns with the government and the ruling party, especially in the Parliament, the next session of which begins on the 20th of May.

Election lessons

Congratulations to the newly elected thrompons of Gelephu, Phuentsholing, Samdrupjongkhar and Thimphu thromdes. Congratulations also to the elected tshogpas of the four thromdes.

The elections of the four thromde tshogdes (city councils) represent the first local government elections held under the auspices of the Constitution. So, the elections also underscore Bhutan’s determined journey to a democracy.

Congratulations are also in order to the Chief Election Commissioner and his staff. The ECB team conducted another round of efficient elections – methodically and meticulously – notwithstanding the protest on their decision to waive off the rule requiring candidates to be registered in their constituency for a minimum of one year.

Here’s a summary of the votes cast – drawn from ECB’s announcements – in the elections for the four thrompons:

And here are three things I’ve picked up from the voting patterns:

One, hardly 50% of the registered voters actually voted. That’s not bad by international standards. But it’s a far cry from the almost 80% voter turnout that the first general elections enjoyed. And, local government elections, in which residents vote for candidates to address their immediate concerns, not vague national issues, should actually generate a bigger turnout.

This does not bode well for our democratic culture. A strong democracy begins with a healthy voter turnout. And declining numbers at the polling station may indicate that we don’t understand democracy; or that we are unwilling to participate in the democratic process; or that we don’t have faith in the system; or that we are simply not interested.

Any of these reasons is dangerous. So we must be careful. We must become more aware of the principles of our democracy. We must stand ready to safeguard the ideals of our democracy. And we must be willing to participate in the democratic process. Otherwise, rest assured, democracy will fail us. And we will have only ourselves to blame.

Two, the elections saw only 26 postal ballots – 24 in Thimphu, 2 in Gelephu and none in Phuentsholing and Samdrupjongkhar. This means that public servants from these constituencies work in their own constituencies; or that public servants from these constituencies went home to vote; or that these constituencies have very few public servants; or, and most likely, that most of the public servants did not vote.

And three, a disproportionately low number of residents of the thromdes were eligible to vote. In 2005, Thimphu had a population of almost 80,000 people. Since then, Thimphu’s boundaries have expanded and its population has increased to 108,000. But it had only 6,300 registered voters for the thromde elections. That means less than 6% of the population were eligible to chose their local government. Of them, only half voted. The three other thromdes also tell similar stories.

This is obviously because the Constitution and electoral laws permit only those whose census is registered in a constituency to vote in that constituency. But since voting is the most powerful way of holding elected leaders to account, the inability of most residents to take part in an election does not augur well for democracy. So we need to reconsider our laws. Or better still, we need to reconsider where we register our censuses, in order to make better use of our franchise.

The banner showcases our new thrompons. I wish them, and the winning tshogpas, a successful tenure.

No blank cheque!

Check book

Business Bhutan recently reported that the prime minister had expressed his frustrations over interpretations of the constitution that were undermining the government’s work. The PM was quoted as saying:

I feel very emotional because we are the democratically elected government with a huge majority which means people have placed their trust fully in us but every time we want to do something the book is being thrown at us.

Our PM is correct. 67% of the electorate voted for DPT, and gave them, the ruling party, 45 of the 47 seats in the National Assembly. Yes, the government was elected by a “huge majority.” And yes, that means the “people have placed their trust fully” in the government.

But the people’s trust in the government, while overwhelming, does not give them carte blanche – a blank cheque to do as they please. Instead, the people expect, and the Constitution requires, the government to function in accordance with the laws of the land.

In his first state of the Nation address, 18 months ago, the PM had announced that the Constitution should not be used as a lagdep, i.e., a manual or guidebook. This is how I had responded to the PM’s concerns:

Our Prime Minister expressed concerns that the Constitution is being used as a detailed manual. And that interpreting the Constitution in rigid and narrow terms undermines good governance and weakens the government. He also reported that we should not unnecessarily invoke and test the Constitution.

I disagree. I firmly believe that we should constantly refer to the Constitution. And that, even if we don’t understand any other law, we should study the Constitution thoroughly. After all, the Constitution is the mother of all laws in Bhutan.

If disagreements arise in the interpretation of the Constitution – and they will be many differences – they should be discussed amicably and with the understanding that all parties involved want nothing but what is best for our country and our people. And, naturally, if these disagreements cannot be resolved the option to take the matter to the courts is always there.

If we feel that the government’s actions are in line with the Constitution, we must support them, especially if the actions are good for the country and the people.

But if we feel that the government’s actions may not necessarily be good for the country and the people, we must raise our voices.

And if we feel that the government’s actions are unconstitutional, we must “throw the book” at them.

Felicitating the Judiciary

The High Court has rendered judgment on Bhutan’s first constitutional case. The esteemed Court ruled that the taxes imposed by the government earlier this year are unlawful, and ordered the government to refund those taxes. The Court also issued an injunction preventing the government from raising taxes without the Parliament’s approval.

The High Court’s landmark verdict has been hailed as a victory for the opposition party. And the opposition has received numerous congratulatory messages.

We are duly humbled. And grateful for the good wishes.

But, the felicitations are misguided.

The Court’s verdict, in fact, is not a victory for the opposition party. Nor is it a loss for the government. We must see the verdict for what it is: the High Court’s interpretation (through considerable hard work and expertise, no doubt) of the Constitution. And that interpretation is not yet binding – it can still be appealed to the Supreme Court.

But regardless of whether the High Court’s verdict is eventually upheld, revised or reversed, and regardless of whether existing laws are amended or not, what will now emerge is a clear understanding of how taxes can be raised. And that understanding will be good for all the parties involved – the government, the ruling party, the opposition, the National Council, and, most importantly, the taxpayer.

At a broader level, the High Court’s verdict is being applauded as evidence of the Judiciary’s independence and, therefore, a healthy democracy. Obviously, the verdict is important for the case. But what’s much more important are the democratic checks and balances that were set in motion almost three months ago when the High Court accepted and started considering the Constitutional Case.

So regardless of the eventual verdict, felicitations are really due to the Judiciary.

A voting matter

Counting on machines

India’s electronic voting machines have come under some scrutiny by the media, civil society, politicians and voters. Since we use the same voting machines, our chief election commissioner, Dasho Kunzang Wangdi, clarified that the recent questions surrounding the integrity of the EVMs are:

… nothing to worry about. “I’m not concerned because I’ve seen many EVMs and the Indian EVMs are the best,” he said, adding that he had inspected various EVMs at an international conference in Philippines, where international vendors showcased technology during an exhibition at the election technology conference. “We have no reason to be concerned.”

The chief election commissioner’s confidence in the electronic voting machines is comforting. And his assurances that our EVMs are the best such machines are welcome.

But the very nature of electronic voting means that there will always be EVM critics. They will warn us that machines, being machines, can be tampered with, and that they can malfunction. And they will point out that voters have no way of verifying that their ballots have been actually recorded or counted properly.

So we should ask ourselves: do we really need to use electronic voting?  And we should ask ourselves this basic yet important question, even if we possess the world’s best EVMs.

Remember that our electorate is small and manageable – the 2008 elections had all of 318,465 registered voters. And that, as such, the paper ballot, a technology that’s plain and simple, but one that’s tried and tested, may serve us much more convincingly.

Answering Sonam

Equity

Sonam’s question generated a good deal of discussions. And, most of you argued that we, elected officials – ministers and MPs alike – should not wear our kabneys and patangs after completing our terms in office.

Similarly, almost all of you who took the poll that asked, “Should elected MPs and ministers continue to wear their “kabneys” after their terms in office?” voted against the idea. A resounding 220 of you said “NO”; only 18 said “YES”.

I agree with the majority. But should we, in fact, take it still further? Should we do away with colour-coded kabneys and patangs completely for our elected officials, even while they are serving their terms in office?

I think so.

The kabney and patang denote rank – they represent power and authority. And they are incongruous in a democracy, a system of government that is based on the important idea that all people are equal. We cannot be true to the principles of democracy and ideals of our Constitution, if the very people that we elect continue to engage in visual displays of power and privilege.

Some of you will argue that we should continue using the kabney and patang as they are part and parcel of our rich cultural heritage. I agree. And, in keeping with our culture and traditions, only His Majesty the King should award such decorations; they shouldn’t be seen as automatic perks for elected MPs and ministers.

Visiting Sombaykha

Tergola

“It must be very difficult”, I’ve been told more than once, “having only two members in the opposition.” Yes, it is difficult. And frustrating. But it is enjoyable too.

What do I enjoy most about my work? Visiting my constituency. Trekking through Sombaykha, Gakiling and the parts of Samma that don’t have motor roads are a highlight of my work as an MP. And I never tire of meeting the people I that represent – simple folks living mainly off subsistence farming.

I am in Sombaykha. This time, my visit will take me through every village in Sombaykha, over the pass at Batashay, and down to Sipsoo in Samtse.

The banner features the mountains beyond my constituency. I took the photo this morning, from Tegola, which stands at about 4,000 meters.

Hijacking democracy

BBS reports that the Prime Minister, in his National Day address in Mongar, cautioned the people about threats to our democracy.

On democracy, the Prime Minister said the threats to democracy are mainly from within, reminding the people to be aware of divisive politics for personal gain. He said in many countries in the world, democracy has been hijacked by people who seek power and privilege.

I agree with our Prime Minister. I agree with him one hundred percent. We must never allow our democracy to be hijacked by people who seek power and privilege!

Paying attention

When did you first know that democracy would be introduced in our country? That was the question I asked in my last entry. No one ventured a definite date. One reader, however, admitted that it was a “tough question” while others questioned the relevance and importance of the question.

Relevant or not, I think I first knew about plans to introduce democracy in our country only in 2004. On 17th December that year, in Mongar, His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo had commanded that: “The highest importance was also attached to the establishment of parliamentary democracy and a system of government that will provide good governance and fulfill the aspirations of our people.” His Majesty was referring to the drafting of the Constitution. A few months later, on 21st March 2005, His Majesty informed the Lhengye Zhungtshog that: “The adoption of the Constitution will provide the legal framework for a democratic political system”. Most of us finally read how parliamentary democracy would be introduced when the draft Constitution was distributed throughout the country on 26th March 2005.

What is important to note is that the Fourth Druk Gyalpo had actually announced the transition to democracy much earlier. His Majesty had made many references to people’s participation and political change, most notably on 10th June 1998 (in the Kasho to the National Assembly Speaker) and on 2nd June 1999 (during the silver jubilee celebrations of the Fourth Druk Gyalpo’s enthronement).  And, as early as 17th December 2001, in Wanduephodrang, His Majesty commanded that:  “While drafting the Tsa-Thrim it is of utmost importance that we safeguard the security and sovereignty of our nation, ensure the well-being of our people and establish a democratic political system that will best serve the interest of our country for all time to come. One of the most important responsibilities of a king is to enable the people to govern and look after the country through the establishment of a dynamic political system.”

The transition to our democracy has, indeed, been uniquely smooth. So smooth that most of us weren’t even paying attention.