Where is the opposition party?

PC: Business Bhutan

Article 18 of the Constitution requires the opposition party to “… play a constructive role to ensure that the Government and the ruling party function in accordance with the provisions of this constitution, provide good governance and strive to promote the national interest and fulfil the aspirations of the people.”

But … where is the opposition? Yes, I see them attending ceremonies and photo ops with the prime minister and the government. That’s good. It promotes harmony. But just promoting harmony is not enough. In fact, if there’s harmony, but without a sound opposition, we risk undermining the institutional checks and balances between the ruling and opposition parties. In other words, the two parties could go in cahoots to put personal and party interests ahead of the national interest.

So where is the opposition party? I really don’t know. Except, that is, for the Dewathang-Gomdar MP Ugyen Dorji. He was in his constituency recently. And he opposed. Unfortunately, he opposed the previous government, not the current one!

Business Bhutan reported that “After touring the length and breadth of his constituency, and spending hours with the local people” MP Ugyen Dorji concluded that he is “disappointed with work done by last government”, and that gewogs in his constituency have “fallen into regression in the last five years”. (I’ve reproduced the entire article at the end of this post for your reading pleasure.)

I’m not going to bore MP Ugyen Dorji by recounting everything we did in his constituency in the last five years. He would already know all that. So let me highlight just a few of the work that was done … to help me understand why he is so disappointed.

Perhaps the honorable MP does not approve of the gewog center roads that we blacktopped. He would know that we blacktopped GC roads to Orong (12.3 km), Gomdar (12 km) and Wangphu (12.5 km) reducing the cost and time of travel while enhancing comfort in his constituency.

Or perhaps he does not agree that the two central schools we opened in his constituency, one each in Orong and Gomdar, are appreciated by his constituents.

Maybe he’s disappointed that Jigme Namgyel Polytechnic in Dewathang was upgraded to an engineering degree awarding college.

Staying with Dewathang, he may be upset that a brand new 40-bedded hospital was constructed there in spite of the fact that Samdrup Jongkhar already has a district hospital. And he may not approve of the fact that 6 medical evacuations were carried out from his constituency by helicopter.

Or could it be that he does not like his constituents doing business? After all, REDC provided subsidized loans for 120 projects totaling more than Nu 15 million. If that is the case – if he does not support rural businesses – then he would be really upset because we opened gewog banks in all four of his gewogs.

Perhaps it’s electricity. All households in his constituency receive 100 units of free electricity each month. This is the case in all gewogs throughout the country, but for some reason he may take exception to it. Similarly, again for some reason best known to himself, he may feel that doubling the rural life insurance was a bad idea.

Maybe the MP does not approve of the construction of the Southern East-West Highway that we had begun quietly, but in earnest. In particular, the road connecting Langchenphug in Jumotshangkha and Samrang is under construction from both sides. And a road to connect Chokorling in Nganglam to Dewathang is also under construction.

Perhaps the honorable MP did not like Gewog Development Grants which provided Nu 10 million to each of his five gewogs. This enabled the local governments to implement a wide range of development work which they considered important but were outside the scope of the 11th Plan. I know that the GDG scheme would offend him as during his tenure as an MP in the ruling party, he enjoyed using the Constituency Development Grant, a much smaller scheme, but one that gave MPs full control of the funds.

But who knows? Maybe he does not like to see industrial growth in Samdrup Jongkhar. After all we spent Nu 100 million for developing the Motanga Industrial Park, and he may be alarmed that 30 industrial plots have already been allotted. Added to that, he would have seen that a ­lot of ground work has been done on the Nyera-Amari hydropower project.

And who knows? It could be just that he does not like to see Samdrup Jongkhar thromde develop. After all, he would know that Nu 640 million was budgeted in the 11th Plan compared to just Nu 351 million in the 10th Plan. This would basically mean that, between the 10th and 11th Plans, development activities were almost doubled in Samdrup Jongkhar town.

Then there’s agriculture. But since MP Ugyen Dorji knows his constituency so well, let’s leave something for him to write about.

  • So perhaps he could tell us the numbers of power tillers that were distributed in his constituency. He would know that even though power tillers were introduced in the country 35 years ago, some of his gewogs did not have a single power tiller till we distributed a power tiller each to every chiwog.
  • Perhaps he could tell us about the new farm roads that were constructed including ongoing work like the road connecting Orong to Dewathang.
  • Perhaps he would care to mention where farm shops were established, and clarify if they enable his constituents to purchase essential products at fair prices.
  • And perhaps he could tell us how many kilometres of electric fencing were installed in how many of his villages, and if they help farmers protect their crops.

The next time MP Ugyen Dorji visits his constituency, I suggest that he reduce the number of his parties and increase the quality of his observation. That would make a much better strategy to serve his constituents. That would also prepare him to be a constructive opposition to the government, and not make us ask “Where is the opposition party?”

Dissolving the government

In his inaugural address last Friday, the Speaker announced that the government has proposed for the early dissolution of the National Assembly.

According to Article 10, Section 24 of the Constitution:

“… While the National Council shall complete its five-year term, premature dissolution of the National Assembly may take place on the recommendation of the Prime Minister to the Druk Gyalpo …”

So yes, the government can recommend the dissolution of the National Assembly before the completion of its term.

The government can do so. But they should not. Why? Because, the government is forcing early elections for their own narrow interests, not for the greater interests of the nation. And that is a bad precedent.

The government’s main excuse for forcing early elections – that, otherwise, the monsoons would interfere with the elections – is nonsense. That’s for ECB to decide, not the government. And the ECB has not even hinted that the monsoons could compromise their ability to conduct this year’s elections.

The government’s other excuse for forcing early elections – that, otherwise, the 11th Five Year Plan would suffer – is absurd. Surely, forcing early elections by 4 to 5 weeks cannot affect a whole five-year plan. Besides, an interim government along with the entire civil service will continue working on the 11th Plan during the three months leading up to the elections.

The government should be honest. They should admit that they want to dissolve the National Assembly before the completion of its term to force early elections. And that they want to force early elections to ensure an easy, perhaps even complete, victory in the upcoming elections.

The ruling party is ready for the elections. During the past six months, the government and their MPs have used their powers of incumbency to prepare for the elections. On the other hand, the new parties have only just received permission to “introduce” themselves to the people. To make matters worse, all the other parties, including the opposition, are still scrambling to finalize their candidates for the elections.

Early elections would favour the ruling party disproportionately. If they want to use that advantage, that’s their business. But they should not pull the wool over our eyes, they should not mislead the nation.

One more thing, the ruling party should remember that the people elected them to serve a five-year term. By dissolving the National Assembly ahead of its term, for their immediate electoral gain and not for the overall national good, they are essentially defaulting on their mandate to serve the people for five complete years. And that is a terrible precedent.

The art of politics

Dasho Gado Tshering is taking the art of politics to new heights. The former health secretary resigned last year “… on moral grounds after an ACC investigation revealed serious lapses in the procurement of GOI-funded medical equipment before 2008.” A few months later he announced that he would join politics. He has said that his decision to join politics was at the behest of the people of Haa. And he has insisted, consistently, that the people of his constituency will decide which party he will join.

Dasho Gado Tshering is popular in Haa. So most people believe that he will win from his constituency, regardless of which party he joins. That has led to a spate of rumors about him joining DMT, DNT, and, most recently, Druk Chirwang Tshogpa. But last week, he put the rumors to rest. He announced that the people of upper Haa want him to join the ruling party, Druk Phuensum Tshogpa. “… as of now, people of upper Haa have DPT in their mind,” he told Kuensel.

If Dasho Gado wants to join DPT, that’s his business. And if DPT wants to give him a ticket for 2013, or has already promised one, that’s their business. Never mind that they still have a serving member of parliament. The art of politics is, after all, the art of the possible.

But Dasho Gado should not blame the people of Haa for his decision to join DPT. He should not put words in their mouths. And he should not make it seem that the people of Haa have decided to continue supporting the ruling party.

The people of Haa have not yet decided. But they will do so soon enough, in the elections next year. In the meantime no one should preempt that decision merely for the purposes of political advantage.

Clear to run(?)

About 6 weeks ago, at a press conference, the prime minister claimed that the Election Commission of Bhutan should disqualify the opposition party from taking part in the next round of elections for failing to clear its debts by the 30 June deadline.

Remarkably, the prime minister also suggested that the two members in opposition should not be permitted to run in the next elections … not as members of their current party, not by starting a new party, not by joining another party.

As it turned out, the election commission, having reviewed the status of the two existing parties, decided that both PDP and DPT continue to enjoy their status as registered political parties. That means that PDP will be able to participate in next year’s elections. That also means that the two members in the opposition will be able to run in the next elections.

Okay, that’s clear.

But what’s not clear is if the prime minister, some of the other DPT ministers, and the speaker will be allowed to take part in the 2013 elections?

The prime minister, the speaker and other ministers have all been implicated in the Gyelpozhing “land grab” case. The Anticorruption Commission investigated the case and concluded that 67 of the 99 plots allotted in Gyelpozhing were “illegal”.

The ACC has already issued a “freeze notice” forbidding any transactions on 75 of the plots.  And they have forwarded the case to the Office of the Attorney General in keeping with the Anticorruption Act, Section 128 of which states that OAG “… shall undertake prosecution of persons on the basis of the findings of the Commission for adjudication by a Court.”

But can OAG prosecute members of the government? Chapter 3, Section 12(a) of the OAG Act states that OAG shall “… represent the Government in civil litigation and criminal prosecution before the Courts of Law …”. Furthermore, Chapter 4, Section 20 of the OAG Act declares that, “The Attorney General shall be accountable to the Prime Minister”.

In fact, the OAG Act does not prevent the attorney general from prosecuting the persons charged in this case, as they are being charged as private individuals, and not as members of the government.

But what if OAG is unwilling to prosecute? What if they feel intimidated? And what if they drag their feet? Then what?

That should not happen. But in the unlikely event that it does, ACC is empowered to conduct its own prosecution. According to Section 128(3) of the Anticorruption Act, the ACC may “… carry out its own prosecution of a person charged with an offense under this Act or take over the prosecution process from the Office of Attorney General when the case is:  (a) delayed without valid reason; (b) manipulated; or (c) hampered by interference.”

So whether it’s by OAG or by ACC, the persons implicated in the Gyelpozhing case will be charged.

But that’s not all. According to Section 167(2) of the Anticorruption Act, “ A public servant who is charged with an offense under this Act shall be suspended with effect from the date of the charge till pending the outcome of any appeals.”

That means that once the prime minister, speaker and other the ministers involved are charged in a court of law, they must be suspended.

But even that is not all. Section 179(g) of the Election Act provides that “A person shall be disqualified as a candidate or a member holding an elective office under the Constitution, if he/she: has been accused of felony in a pending case and the competent Court has taken cognizance and charges have been framed against him/her.”

That means that once they are charged, and if they are accused of felony, they must be disqualified from their offices, not just suspended.

That also means that, unless they are acquitted by the courts of law, they cannot take part in next year’s elections.

The first Parliament will complete its term in April 2013. And according to the Constitution, elections must be conducted within the next 90 days. That means that elections must be conducted by July, at the latest. And that means that, to take part in the elections, the accused must be acquitted by June 2013.

That’s just nine months from now. Nine months for the speaker to prove that he didn’t break the law in the way he allotted land to influential people. And nine months for the prime minister, the minister for works and human settlement and the minister of finance to prove that they did not break the law in applying for and accepting large tracks of land in Gyelpozhing.

DPT leaders

Allegations that Dasho Chang Ugyen had illegally acquired 10 acres of community and government land in 1987 has drawn widespread outrage and public condemnation. The allegations come even as the Gyelpozhing land grab case is still being investigated.

Both the land cases involve the senior most DPT leaders. The president, both vice presidents and several senior members of the DPT are alleged to have acquired large tracks of land illegally.

Some commentators here have pointed out that the land was acquired many years ago, much before DPT was established, and that, as such, DPT should not be linked to the allegations. They are right. The DPT party should not and cannot be held responsible for what their members did long before the party was established. But the members, if they broke the law then, must be punished now, even if it has been many years since the misdeed.

Instead, DPT leaders seem to be using their party to shield themselves from scrutiny. First, after the Gyelpozhing case was reported, the prime minister went on record to suggest that the allegations were politically motivated as they had been made “just as people are talking about next round of elections”.

And now, after Chang Ugyen’s case was reported, Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba has asserted that, “… It is sad to see that a personal issue is being politicized.”

I agree. The cases should not be politicized. But for that, DPT leaders must accept that they, like everyone else, must be investigated for alleged wrongdoings. And when that happens, DPT leaders must themselves refrain from misleading the public to believe that the allegations are politically motivated.

Good ideas

Reports by BBS have confirmed recent rumours that Dasho Penjor Dorji and Dr Tandin Dorji are each starting a political party. That is good news. The next parliamentary elections will take place in 2013, in less than two years. So if we are to have more than two political parties by then – if we are to have a primary round of elections the next time around – it’s time to start openly working to establish new parties.

The reports about new political parties in the offing should also be received as very good news, as new parties will offer that much more political choice to our voters. Our country still has only two parties – DPT and PDP – and, so far, both of them have refused, and failed, to set themselves apart ideologically. The entry of new political parties will, hopefully, provide clearer and more substantive ideological alternatives to our voters, alternatives that are essential for our fledgling democracy.

Dasho Penjor and Dr Tandin have both been politically active. Dasho Penjor had tried to start the Bhutan National Party in 2007. He also played a key role in the merger of BNP, BPUP and APP to form the current ruling party, DPT.

Dr Tandin was PDP’s candidate in the 2008 elections representing Lingmukha-Toewang constituency. After the elections, he co-authored “Drukyul Decides”, a book in which he chronicles the events of the 2008 elections.

I wish them, and their new parties, success.

Monkey business

Last Sunday’s cover page of The Journalist features a troup of loud monkeys goading a horse and a couple of cranes to continue pushing for state funding.

The dejected animals encircled by the rascals appear to complain:

“…. And No Matter What We Do Or How We Spin It, They Are Still Gonna See State Funding As Monkey Business”

The Journalist is right: no matter how you look at it, state funding for political parties is indeed monkey business.

But The Journalist is also wrong: the horse wants no part of the monkey business, so it should not be there.

The Constitution does not permit state funding for political parties – plain and simple. So there’s no point in arguing about the need for state funding. If state funding is needed – and needed critically – then first amend the laws. Otherwise, no matter how state funding is justified, it must ultimately be subjected to the laws of the land.

Now join the fun in jungles of our democracy…

 

Press conference

The opposition party will hold a press conference at 3:30 PM today. Members of the media, and any other interested parties, are invited to participate.

Venue: the conference hall of the National Assembly

Funding parties

The ruling party today submitted a motion to amend the Election Act 2008. The motion sailed through the National Assembly, with only two members – both from the opposition party – objecting to it.

The proposed amendment seeks to include a new provision in the Election Act that would permit state funding for political parties.

According to Section 158 of the Election Act:

The income of political parties shall be made up of:

(a) Registration fee;

(b) Membership fees; and

(c) Voluntary Contributions from registered members.

Section 158 was debated extensively during the first session of the Parliament when the Election Act was passed. At that time, the Parliament had resolved that including state funding for political parties would contravene Article 15 Section 4(d) of the Constitution by which:

A political party shall be registered by the Election Commission on its satisfying the qualifications and requirements set out hereinafter, that: … (d) It does not accept money or any assistance other than those contributions made by its registered members, and the amount or value shall be fixed by the Election Commission.

But now the ruling party proposes to insert a new subsection under Section 158 that would allow political parties to receive state funding. According to the new subsection, income of the political parties would include:

(d) Funding from the State to the Ruling Party and the Opposition Party

Another new section proposes to allow the government to decide the amount of funding political parties would receive:

The Ruling Party and the Opposition Party shall receive funding from the State to maintain their party machineries and the amount shall be determined by the Government in consultation with the Election Commission of Bhutan.

State funding for political parties was discussed thoroughly during the first session of the Parliament. And it was deemed unconstitutional. The National Council had ruled that state funding for political parties is unconstitutional. The National Assembly had accepted that state funding is possible only if the Constitution is amended.

The Chief Election Commissioner had categorically stated that:

State support to political parties would contravene Section 4 (d) of Article 15 of the Constitution.

And the Chief Justice of Bhutan had warned that:

State funding of political parties negates the very objective of democratic principles, and therefore the National Assembly resolution will have to be adjudicated to determine its constitutionality.

According to the proposed amendment, only the ruling and opposition parties would be provided state funding. If we allow that, it would become very difficult for new political parties to challenge the existing two parties.

And according to the proposed amendment, the government would hold the authority to determine how much funding to provide. If we allow that, it would become virtually impossible for new political parties to challenge the existing two parties.

But I oppose state funding for political parties, mainly because it would violate the Constitution, both in letter and in spirit.

Yes, our party, the PDP, is in deep financial trouble. And yes, because of that, we may not qualify for the 2013 general elections. But that’s no excuse to disregard the Constitution.

I knew I smelt danger.

Dangerous talk

I smell danger.

The prime minister is going all out campaigning for state funding for political parties.

In January, the prime minister informed the business community in Phuensholing that both the political parties were facing severe financial difficulties. Referring to the Parliament’s decision not to provide state financing for political parties, the prime minister complained that:

We asked for financial support but, there was so much criticism about it being unconstitutional, we withdrew the plea … whatever the government had done so far is in accordance with the Constitution.

Shortly afterwards, in Gelephu, the prime minister told the community there that DPT needed state funds to run their offices. He explained that the reason the parliament could render state funding for political parties as unconstitutional, was because:

… although the DPT government outnumbered the opposition, they [the government] retreated.

Earlier this month, in Thimphu, at the annual dzongdag conference, the PM argued that he had not seen any rules in the Constitution that specifically prohibit state funding for political parties. And he threatened that, if funds were not made available for his party:

we might have to compromise sincerity and not serve the people anymore. We might even have to sell the party

And, the day before yesterday, in a press conference, he insisted that only state funding could rescue the political parties. He called for a “liberal interpretation” of the Constitution arguing that:

while there is no specific provision in the constitution to allow state funding and political parties, there is no provision prohibiting state funding either.

The PM continues to insist for state funding, in spite of the fact that the National Assembly had decided against it. And in spite of the speaker suggesting that the Constitution would first have to be amended, if the legislature wanted to discuss state financing for political parties.

Why do I smell danger? Because I am becoming increasingly convinced that, constitutional or not, the government plans to bulldoze state funding for parties in the next session of the Parliament.

Would they really do that?

Yes!

In fact, that’s exactly what the government did with the CDG. The Parliament hadn’t reached a resolution on the CDG. The National Council had called it unconstitutional, faulty, and ambiguous. And they had submitted the matter to His Majesty the King.

Yet the government passed the CDG. And they did so without even discussing it the National Assembly. Instead, the CDG was discretely incorporated in the annual budget.

I smell danger.