Extremely determined disrespectful opinion

The government has decided to discontinue the constituency development grant. That is good news. The government had bulldozed the CDG through the Parliament, without a full debate, without a vote, and without any support of the National Council and the opposition party. The ECB had objected saying that the CDG undermines free and fair elections. And the media has repeatedly questioned the legality of the grant. So the government’s decision to discontinue the controversial grant comes as really good news.

But there’s bad news too. The prime minister has not accepted that the CDG was a mistake. He has not apologized, and he has not explained how he will make amends or who will take responsibility. Instead, he has blamed the people who questioned and opposed CDG. And he has threatened that the “next government” would, anyway, reinstate CDG.

The prime minister claims that he is discontinuing CDG to avoid the specter of another “constitutional case towards the end of their term” as there are “people who are willing to take the government to court.”

Yes, we did take the government to court for raising taxes illegally. And yes, we will not hesitate to take the government to court if they purposely violate important provisions of the Constitution. After all, the opposition party’s main responsibility, according to the Constitution, is to ensure that the government and ruling party function in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution

The prime minister has also complained that, “So here you have the majority opinion and majority feelings giving way to the extremely determined and disrespectful opinion of the few in a democracy.”

The opposition party has only 2 members. That works out to just 4% of the National Assembly seats. And that makes us probably the world’s smallest opposition. But we have worked with extreme determination and we have not hesitated to express our opinion, even at the risk of appearing disrespectful. And I am happy that our unwavering stand has prompted the government, one that enjoys an overwhelming majority, to discontinue the CDG.

But there’s still something else: according to Article 22 Section 18(c) of the Constitution, “Local Governments shall be entitled to adequate financial resources from the Government in the form of annual grants.”

The controversial constituency development grant is no more. Good. But what about the annual grants that local governments are entitled to collect from the government? When will the government fulfill that important provision of the Constitution?

No doubt, the government realizes that the opposition party will be “extremely determined” and will not hesitate to express “disrespectful opinion” to ensure that local governments are provided annual grants, grants that they can use without the interference of their MPs.

CDG giveaway

Looking for power

During a recent meeting with gups, the PM reminded the local government leaders that, “The constituency development grant of Nu 2M … was not fully used in most gewogs”. And he advised them to put the CDG “… to use to benefit the poor and contribute towards alleviating poverty.”

The PM makes it sound like local governments have full authority over CDG. They don’t.

Firstly, local governments cannot decide how to use the CDG. They can only submit project proposals. The proposals must ultimately be approved by their MPs. And the ministry of finance can release CDG funds to gewogs only at the instructions of MPs.

And secondly, CDGs are earmarked for National Assembly constituencies. Each constituency is made up of a group of gewogs. Most gups have no idea how the CDG will divided, and how much their respective gewogs will receive. That decision seems to lie exclusively with the MP.

The government should be concerned that most gewogs have not used CDG fully. If that concern is genuine, the government should hand over full and complete authority of the CDG to local governments. There’s really no need to involve MPs.

Otherwise, and in spite of what the PM has said, most gewogs will still not be able to make full use of the CDG. In which case, something else should concern the PM: that his MPs may purposely delay use of CDG till 2012 in order to extract maximum political mileage. The next general elections, after all, is in 2013.

Photo credit: Kuensel

Working with NC

The prime minister, in his State of the Nation address, on differences between the National Council and National Assembly:

Already several issues have arisen between the National Council and this House which inevitably raised the question of seeking the guidance of the Supreme Court even before it was established. Now with its establishment, the wisdom of the judiciary too will be tested if indeed constitutional issues are brought before it.

My hope is that, through the ongoing dialogue between the two houses, these issues will be resolved without judicial intervention.

Very good.

Now prove that there’s some genuine commitment to resolve the many outstanding issues that the government and the National Assembly have with the National Council. Initiate that “ongoing dialogue”. And if differences can’t be resolved, seek the judiciary’s assistance. Major disagreements that need immediate attention are:

  1. Constituency Development Grant. The government has completely ignored the National Council’s repeated assertions that the CDG is unconstitutional.
  2. Question Time: Ministers have once again stopped attending the National Council’s Question Time.
  3. Budget appropriation. The National Council’s role in approving money and financial bills, especially in passing the budget, is still unresolved.
  4. NC resolutions. The government has not responded to any of the National Council’s resolutions. And during the current session, the National Council has made strong observations on the  economic development and FDI policies.

Open Letter to Chairpersons

Stand up, stand up!

Like last year, the opposition party was again left out of the annual conference for local government chairpersons.

It was important to meet them. And it would have been useful. But I couldn’t. So I’m sending them an open letter expressing my concerns over the CDG and the inclusion of party workers in the local development process.

Photo credit: Kuensel

CDG – MPs = LG

The Constituency Development Grant:

  • The National Council has declared it as unconstitutional;
  • The Election Commission of Bhutan has complained that it will compromise the conduct of free and fair elections;
  • citizens have called it a political tool; and
  • the opposition party has denounced it.

And still, the controversial CDG prevails.

But faced with increasing questions on the legitimacy, intent and usage of the CDG, the prime minister has agreed to consider revoking the grant after two years of his government. The plan, apparently, is to scrap the CDG:

Provided that majority of the Gewog Tshogde (GT) submits that it was not useful.

But why involve local governments? Either the CDG is constitutional, or it is not. If it is, and if it is good for democracy, go ahead and implement it. But if it is not constitutional, withdraw it.

So don’t pass the buck to local governments.

But if we must, then give local governments real choice. Ask them if they would like to implement the CDG with their MPs. Or if they would prefer to implement the grant without the interference of their MPs.

First give them the money – they need it. Then ask them if they would like their MPs to be involved in the management of that money. And they will tell you, in no uncertain terms, No!

CDG concerns

Earlier this year, while many of us expressed concerns over the legality of the Constituency Development Grant, the Gelephu MP had decided to use the grant to provide free boat services to passengers crossing the Mao Khola. “We are not supposed to use the CDG for recurring expenses. But considering this case to be important and for the good of the people I have put up the proposal,” he had said.

The CDG was used to ferry passengers across the Mao Khola. Yet, no one has questioned the use of a “development” grant for “recurrent” expenses. Not so far, at least. But, our government will continue to draw criticism for the CDG. Bhutan Today, for instance, has pointed out that the CDG is meant for “development activities in the constituency” and that there must be “issues and areas of development” that should have been prioritized ahead of the free ferry services.

And, earlier this month, the ECB had formally registered their reservations against the CDG. In a letter to the prime minister they argued that the CDG is unconstitutional as the Members of the National Assembly would be infringing on the roles of the executive and local governments; that the CDG undermines the institution of the local governments; that the CDG would constitute an Office for Profit; and that the CDG would compromise the conduct of free and fair elections in the future.

The ECB has recommended that the government “discontinue the Constituency Development Grant forthwith…” failing which “…an appropriate intervention through due process shall be initiated.”

Being blunt

One of them is confused

One of them is confused

The cartoon in the last issue of Bhutan Times showed Lyonpo Nanda Lal Rai announcing: “I’m going to be blunt. He (opposition leader) along with other MPs will get the CDG. But he’s creating all this noise to gain political mileage. If people are misinterpreting the Constitution from day one, they’re asking for trouble.”

I take issue with Lyonpo Nanda Lal on four counts. First, I cannot and will not accept the CDG if I continue to believe it to be unconstitutional. My understanding of our obligations to safeguard our Constitution will not allow me do so. In fact that’s what the first part of Tshering Tobgay’s placard says in the BT cartoon.

Second, challenging government policy is not “noise” and is not for “political mileage”. It is our duty. And especially so if government policies risk infringing on our constitution. We’ve raised our concerns through various media – the press, TV, this blog and officially with the government. More important, the National Council and the public have also raised similar concerns about the CDG. But, so far, our government has not offered any explanation as to why they feel that the CDG does not violate certain provisions of our Constitution. So to dismiss constructive criticism and genuine concern as “noise to gain political mileage” demonstrates the complete lack of understanding of the issues. Or it demonstrates outright arrogance. Both are not good for our democracy.

Third, if our government feels that “people are misinterpreting the Constitution” they should explain which provisions of the Constitution are being misinterpreted. This is their duty. Yet our government has not ventured any explanation on the constitutionality of the CDG. So simply charging people of misinterpreting the Constitution without offering any justification is wrong. Prove that the CDG is not unconstitutional and I will stand corrected. That, in essence, is what the second part of Tshering Tobgay’s placard says in the BT cartoon.

And finally, I have absolutely no idea what Lyonpo means when he treathens that “they’re asking for trouble”. We are not asking for trouble. But what we are asking for is an explanation from our government. What we are asking for is the democratic process. What we are asking for is our Constitution.

About the CDG

Last month, Archibald read “Illegal grants” and commented: “…i’ve been wondering what the CDG is…” A few other people have also asked me about the CDG. So let’s talk about the CDG. Or, better yet, let’s see what the National Council has said about the controversial grant.

But first, let’s recall how the grant was first introduced. It went something like this: On 23 June 2008, during the first session of the Parliament, the National Assembly discussed the budget for the year 2008-2009. The proposed budget made no mention of a CDG.

When the National Council debated the proposed budget (30 June to 2 July 2008), they noted that the media had reported our government’s decision to provide state funding for political parties, and asked if money had been allocated in the proposed budget to fund political parties. The proposed budget had made absolutely no mention of any funding for political parties.

Our government reported that Nu 30 million to fund political parties had been kept aside under the Ministry of Finance’s budget head. The NC debated this and decided that state funding for political parties was unconstitutional.

Similarly the NC asked if money had been kept aside for a CDG though the proposed budget made absolutely no mention of it. Our government reported that Nu 94 million for a CDG had been included in the proposed budget.

The NC had uncovered that money for state funding for political parties and CDG -both new programs that were bound to be controversial – had been included in the proposed budget, but without making any mention of these programs. In effect, they had been hidden. The NC resolved not to endorse these programs.

And that’s how we, including the opposition leader, came to know about the CDG.

Now let’s have a quick look at the Constituency Development Grant Rules 2009, published by the Ministry of Finance. The first line of the Rules reads: The Constituency Development Grant (CDG) is established by the Royal Government as a separate budget head in the annual budget (herein after referred to as the Grant) to be placed at the disposal of the Members of the National Assembly (MNA).

The Rules go on to indicate that Nu 10 million will be placed at the disposal of each MNA; that MNAs (not the Dzongkhag Tshogdu Chairpersons, Dzongdags or Gups) will announce the availability of the fund; that MNAs can suggest projects; that local governments must discuss all projects with MNAs; that MNAs have the final authority to approve projects; that MOF will release funds for projects only after receiving the approval of the MNAs; that MNAs will monitor all projects; and that MNA’s can terminate projects and divert funds to other projects.

And now for the National Council’s views. The Council recently published NC Reflections in which their members express their views. And in it Honourable Tashi Wangmo and Honourable Karma Y. Raydi, both Eminent Persons, talk about the CDG. Since the NC Reflections is not yet available on their website you can read their article here.

CDG unconstitutional

Yesterday, I called on our Minister of Finance. I met him to personally explain why the opposition feels that the Constituency Grant (CDG) is unconstitutional. In particular, I advised him that the CDG may violate the following provisions of our constitution.

Article 1.13: There shall be separation of the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary and no encroachment of each other’s powers is permissible except to the extent provided for by this Constitution.

The CDG, as proposed, require MPs (members of the legislature) to be involved in proposing, approving and monitoring projects in the gewogs. That is, the legislature will be carrying out executive functions. And this is unconstitutional.

Article 10.2: Parliament shall ensure that the Government safeguards the interests of the nation and fulfils the aspirations of the people through public review of policies and issues, Bills and other legislations, and scrutiny of State functions.

The CDG would require Members of Parliament to handle executive powers and responsibilities that go beyond the functions of the Parliament as described in this article.

Article 20.2: The Executive Power shall be vested in the Lhengye Zhungtshog which shall consist of the Ministers headed by the Prime Minister …

The CDG allows MPs to exercise executive powers thereby infringing on the powers of the Cabinet.

Article 22.1: Power and authority shall be decentralilzed and devolved to elected Local Governments to facilitate the direct participation of the people in the development and management of their own social, economic and environmental well-being.

The CDG provides MPs with considerable authority over funds meant for the development of gewogs. So the CDG infringes on the powers of the Local Governments. And it undermines the Local Governments.

Based on these arguments, I’m hopeful that our government will reconsider its approval of the CDG, and allow local governments full power and authority over these funds.

CDG poll results

Of the 37 participants in the poll, 43% asked for more debate on the CDG by using our media. 35% felt that the CDG was unconstitutional and that the Ministry of Finance should be informed accordingly. And 22% said that ECB should be informed that the CDG breaks election laws.

Thank you for your advice.

Yesterday I officially informed that Minister of Finance that the CDG is unconstitutional. And I spoke with the media with the hope of facilitating public debate on this important issue.