Is it legal? Is it logical? Is it needed? Three questions that we, members of Parliament, should ask ourselves today when we talk about state funding for political parties during the joint sitting.
Is state funding for political parties legal? No.
Article 15 Section 4(d) of the Constitution clearly forbids political parties from accepting “… money or any assistance other than those contributions made by its registered members”. That’s why the National Assembly decided almost 4 years ago that state funding for political parties would be unconstitutional. That’s why the Election Commission of Bhutan has called state funding for political parties illegal. And that’s why the Chief Justice of Bhutan has declared that state funding for political parties would go against the “spirit of the Constitution”.
Is state funding for political parties logical? No.
A political party, by definition, is a group of people who share the same ideas on how our country should be governed. These people work together to advance their political beliefs by securing the right to make laws, determine policies, and to run our government.
A political party, therefore, needs people. It needs people to support its ideas. And it needs people to finance the party machinery to advance those ideas. So if a party, any party, cannot draw enough people to support it, that party cannot claim to be a true political party.
You may agree with the ideas of a political party. Or you may not. If you do, you may wish to support that party, you may wish to become a member of that party, and you may wish to contribute financially to that party. But if you don’t agree to those ideas, you may wish to support an alternate political party. Or you may wish to stay neutral.
That decision is yours. That decision is your right. You may chose to support one party, or another, or you may chose to stay neutral. I repeat: that decision is your right. And what state funding for political parties threatens to do is infringe on that right. State funding would mean that your tax money will go to support all political parties; whether or not you want to support them, whether or not you agree with their ideas, your tax money will go towards propping them up.
To make matters worse, state funding for political parties would short-circuit the important relationship between political parties and the people. On the one hand, state funding would permit a political party to exist even if its ideas are not generally supported. On the other hand, state funding would mean that a political party does not have to be accountable to people. Instead that political party would essentially become, and should be required to operate as, a government department!
Is state funding for political parties needed? No.
Political parties are vital for democracy, any democracy. And in most democratic countries, political parties play an active role in almost all spheres of life.
Political parties are essential for our democracy too. But our democracy, as defined by the Constitution, purposely limits the scope and role of political parties. That’s why the National Council is nonpartisan; its members cannot belong to a political party. That’s why local governments are nonpartisan; members of dzongkhag, gewog and thromde governments cannot belong to a political party. That’s why civil servants are apolitical. That’s why members of religious organisations and the armed forces cannot belong to a political party. And that’s why only two parties can be represented in the National Assembly at any given time.
All this seems to have been done on purpose, to limit the role and scope of political parties in Bhutan. Why? I don’t know. But I am sure that the drafters of our Constitution knew what they were doing, and what they did, they did for the best interests of the country and the people.
Perhaps they wanted to prevent partisan politics from dividing our small, tight-knit society. Perhaps they wanted to prevent divisive politics from dominating life in our rural communities. Perhaps they wanted to allow the general public to be able to have trust and confidence in local governments and the civil service regardless of which party comes to power. Perhaps they didn’t want political parties to become too powerful. I don’t know.
What I do know is that, because of the Constitution’s provisions, political parties have very little work between elections. As such political parties don’t need offices throughout the country. Yes, political parties must remain accessible to the people, but they must not risk interfering in the business of local government or in the work of the executive. That’s why political parties do not need to maintain – they should not maintain – a strong presence in the gewogs or in the dzongkhags.
All this means that political parties do not really need that much money. Income from registration fees, membership fees and voluntary contributions should be more than enough to support the operations of the party, as long as the party has dedicated members, and as long as the party lives within its means.
Is state funding legal? No.
Is it logical? No.
Is it needed? No.