Saving face

The Supreme Court has ruled that the government violated the Constitution by raising taxes without seeking the Parliament’s approval.

This is a landmark verdict. But the verdict should not be seen as a loss for the government. Nor should it be seen as a win for the opposition party. In fact it should be seen, and celebrated, for what it really is: a resounding victory for the democratic process.

Even so, the government made a mistake – a serious mistake – by imposing taxes unilaterally and, in so doing, violated the Constitution. For that, the government must accept moral responsibility.

Naturally, how the government exercises moral responsibility for their transgressions is their business. It is an internal matter, but one that is important, as it will set the standards for government accountability.

In this instance, however – for imposing taxes unlawfully – the government should just accept that they had made a mistake, apologize for it, and move on.

Apologize and move on, that’s what the government should do.

Instead the government has responded to the Supreme Court’s decision in other ways, all of which is exactly what the government should not do.

First and foremost, the government should not tell people that they have been prevented from raising taxes. That’s not true. The constitutional case did not question the need to raise taxes, including the tax on vehicles.

Taxes are needed, there’s no doubt about that. And taxes must be raised, especially to meet national goals. But taxes can be raised only in accordance with the procedures enshrined in the Constitution. And that’s what the Supreme Court’s verdict is about – how to impose taxes.

The government can and must raise taxes. But when they do so, they, like all of us, must follow the law.

Second, the government should not threaten people that they will not receive electricity or roads or other development work, because they can no longer accept grants and raise loans. Again, not true.

The constitutional case was about the procedure to raise taxes, not about accepting grants or loans. The Supreme Court has even clarified that the government has the authority to accept grants and raise loans.

Third, the government should not claim that the Supreme Court’s verdict has weakened democracy. It has not. On the contrary, the constitutional case and the verdict have strengthened the democratic process. Various institutions – including the Parliament, the ruling party, the opposition, the executive, the media and, most importantly, the judiciary – played their respective roles to safeguard the Constitution and to ensure that its provisions are understood and obeyed.

The constitutional case and the verdicts of the courts have strengthened the rule of law. That surely is good for democracy.

And finally, the government should not threaten to resign. No one has asked for any resignation. Talk about resignation – either individually or en masse – is irresponsible. It is also dangerous. Having threatened resignation the government may find it hard to save face without actually resigning.

Vast paintings

A painting of the Punakha Dzong has graced the banner of this website for about two weeks. The beautiful painting was created by Rajesh Gurung.

I saw Rajesh Gurung’s Punakha Dzong at the VAST gallery. It’s still there if you’d like to see it. And so are many other paintings, all by Bhutanese artists. I’ve uploaded photographs of a few of the paintings to tempt you to visit the VAST gallery.

Enjoy …

Appealling justice

Yesterday, after learning that the government was appealing the High Court’s verdict, Bhutan Today sent me some questions. With their permission, I’m reproducing their questions and my answers here.

What do you think about the government appealing to the Supreme Court?

I am pleased that the government has decided to appeal to the Supreme Court, as they were obviously not satisfied with the High Court’s verdict. Remember that the government has the right to appeal to the Supreme Court.

As far as the opposition party is concerned, we respect the government’s decision to appeal, and will submit to the judicial process completely.

Do you think the High Court’s verdict has failed to set a precedence on constitutional cases for the future?

The High Court has not failed in any way. They ordered a verdict after giving the case careful and considerable thought. The fact that the government is appealing to the Supreme Court does not diminish, in any way or manner, the excellent work done by the High Court.

How hopeful are you of what the Supreme Court might pass as verdict? Do you think it will favor the government?

I have full confidence in the Judiciary. And I am absolutely certain that the Judiciary will fulfill their Constitutional mandate to “safeguard, uphold, and administer Justice fairly and independently without fear, favour, or undue delay in accordance with the Rule of Law to inspire trust and confidence and to enhance access to Justice.”

Obviously, we cannot predict what the final verdict will be. But regardless of how Supreme Court rules, you can rest assured that the opposition party will accept it without any question.

What is the long term implication of this case incase the Supreme Court intrepretation favors the government?

The fact that the government is appealing to the Supreme Court is good. It will bring proper closure to our first constitutional case. After all, the Supreme Court is the guardian of the Constitution, and the final authority on its implementation.

We will argue the case to the very best of our ability, but we will accept, and abide by, the Supreme Court’s final verdict. Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, I am confident that the long term interests country and the people will be protected.

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.