On ECB’s side

Elections are the single most important part of a democracy. They allow people to participate in the democratic process by directly choosing who they want as their representatives in the parliament. And they provide political legitimacy to elected representatives and to democratic governments. That’s why it’s important to allow as many people as possible to take part in elections.

So, naturally, I’m happy to hear that the Election Commission has decided to allow Bhutanese citizens living in America to use postal ballots in the next elections. They were not allowed to do so in the past, and, as such, most of them could not exercise their right to vote. I applaud the ECB’s decision, and am fully committed to supporting any initiative that makes it easier for even more of our people to take part in the democratic process.

But I am alarmed at the ECB’s justification for their decision. The chief election commissioner has gone on record to state that the ECB’s decision was “the result of the commitment prime minister made during one of his visits as the head of the government.”

The prime minister cannot alter the electoral system; only parliament can.

What ECB can do, and must do, as long as it is within the framework of our electoral laws, is improve the system to encourage and allow more of our people to exercise the their franchise. But what ECB does, they must do because they feel it is in the best interest of democracy, and not as a “result of the commitment” that a politician may have made.

Otherwise, ECB may be seen to be taking sides. And that won’t be good for democracy.

Democracy in Bhutan

The people's choice

Uncontested elections are generally walkovers for the lone candidates. That’s why they’re called “uncontested” elections. Since uncontested elections have only one contesting candidate, that candidate is automatically declared the winner.

But not in Bhutan. Our electoral laws allow voters to cast their ballots even if there’s only one candidate is running. According to Sections 575 and 576 of the Election Act:

575.     A poll at any election to Parliament or a Local Government shall be taken in the constituency concerned even if there is only one contesting candidate or political party.

576.     The candidate shall, for the purposes of section 575, be declared elected only if he/she secures in his/her favour a majority of the total valid votes cast at the election.

This feature is unique to Bhutan. Unlike voters in other democracies, our voters can exercise their right to vote even in uncontested elections. That is, our voters have the right to accept or reject a candidate even if that candidate is the only candidate in that constituency.

The whole purpose of democracy is to give people the power to choose their representatives. So the people must enjoy that power – to accept or reject – even if there is only one contesting candidate.

The recent local government elections proved that this unique feature is important. The elections had 535 constituencies having only one candidate. And voters rejected the lone candidates in 31 of those constituencies.

The winning candidates will represent their people for five years. So it’s important that people have the right choose their representatives even when that choice is limited to one candidate.

Naturally, I feel bad for the 31 candidates who lost the uncontested elections. But the results, unfortunate though they may seem, are a celebration of democracy in Bhutan.

Photo credit: BBS

Well done ECB

The Election Commission of Bhutan have now completed seven rounds of elections. Of the seven, last Monday’s local government elections was by far the largest and most complex. It was also the most successful.

ECB officials, including those in the dzongkhags, worked round the clock, for months on end, to organize the elections. They were assisted by about 150 senior civil servants who were on deputation since early April this year to work as observers and returning officers.

And more than 5,500 election officials, most of them teachers, were trained and dispatched to man the 1,103 polling stations located throughout our country.

In addition, thousands of workers contributed their services indirectly. They were the ones who kept our roads open, telephones working, banks running and electricity functioning. Plus countless security personal worked to ensure the safety of the elections.

On poll day, despite the rains, a decent 56% of registered voters turned up to cast their ballots. Of the 2,185 candidates who contested the elections, 1,105 won becoming gups, mangmis, tshogpas and thromde thuemis in accordance with the Constitution.

The mammoth exercise cost the State Nu 225 million. But the election is worth the money. And worth the time. And the huge effort.

Why? Because the Constitution requires “… 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”. And that, in short, is what our democracy is all about.

Incidentally, the first elections that the ECB conducted was the “mock elections” on 21st April 2007 in which “Druk Yellow Party” and “Druk Red Party” emerged as the two leading parties.

On 28th May 2007, ECB conducted another “mock election” in which the “Druk Yellow Party” trounced the “Druk Red Party” winning 46 of the 47 constituencies.

On 31st December 2007, the ECB conducted the National Council elections, which became the first elections to be conducted under the Constitution. On 29th January 2008, National Council elections were held for the 5 dzongkhags that did not have sufficient candidates earlier.

On 24th March 2008, the first general elections to the National Assembly was conducted in which DPT clobbered the PDP winning 45 of the 47 constituencies.

And on 21st January 2011, Thromde elections were conducted in the four so-called “Class A” thromdes.

The banner, featuring voters in Meewang gewog’s Khasatrapchu polling station, celebrates the successes of the Election Commission of Bhutan.

Breaking the law?

Aspiring candidates

210 candidates have been disqualified from taking part in the local government elections. These candidates, all of whom had been members of a political party, were disqualified as it has not yet been one year since they resigned from their respective political parties.

Actually all of them had resigned from their political parties more than a year ago. All of them were automatically deemed to have resigned as far back as 2008 when they did not renew their memberships with their respective parties.

But Section 206 of the Election Act requires that any resignation or removal from a party “…shall be immediately notified by the concerned party office in the print media with a copy submitted to the Election Commission.” It turns out that both the political parties failed to publish the names of these deregistered members in the print media or to notify the Election Commission as soon as their memberships had expired.

Therefore, the ECB has ruled that the 210 candidates are not eligible to participate in the local government elections. They’ve been disqualified. But they’ve been disqualified through no fault of their own. In fact, the fault – for not announcing their resignations in the print media and for not informing the Election Commission in time – lies with the political parties.

So the ECB should punish the political parties. If electoral laws have been broken, it is because of them, not their ex-members.

And the ECB should allow the 210 candidates to take part in the elections. They have not broken the law.

Photo credit: Kuensel

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.




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.

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.

Testing ourselves

Functional literacy?

The ECB’s “functional literacy and skills test” for candidates to local government elections is comprehensive. Aspiring candidates will have to take a written test to determine their computational, analytical, managerial and correspondence skills. And they will have to undergo an oral test to demonstrate their reading, writing and speaking skills.

ECB’s diligence will, no doubt, ensure that only the most competent can stand for the local government elections. And, that must be good.

But I’ve been wondering: how many of our current MPs would have passed the functional literacy and skills test?

I don’t know about my colleagues in the Parliament, but since the test is conducted in Dzongkha, I, for one, would have failed.

Photo credit: Bhutan Observer showing graduates re-learning Dzongkha for RCSC exams.

CDG and future elections

Free and fair?

Free and fair?

I called on our Chief Election Commissioner yesterday. I called on him to report that the CDG, if implemented as proposed, will compromise the ECB’s ability to conduct future elections to the National Assembly in a free and fair manner. The Constitution (Article 24.1) and the Election Act (Chapter 3.34) specifically require the Election Commission of Bhutan to conduct elections “in a free and fair manner.”

Why would CDG hinder free and fair elections? Through CDG, our government places Nu 10 million at the disposal of the members of the National Assembly. How that money is used in their respective constituencies is finally up to MP from that constituency. The MP concerned has the authority to suggest project ideas, to consider all project proposals, to approve projects, and to divert funds from projects already approved that the MP may find unsatisfactory.

These are sweeping executive powers for MPs, members of a legislature that is not permitted to encroach on the executive’s powers. And, given the opportunity, MPs will use these State resources to maximize political gain. And the ECB’s ability to conduct future National Assembly elections “in a free and fair manner” would be seriously compromised.

I also reported to the Chief Election Commissioner that the CDG may constitute Office of Profit since MPs would have “powers of disbursement of State funds…” as described in the Election Act {Chapter 9.164(c)}. This particular Office of Profit, according to the Election Act, is not permitted, and may provide sufficient grounds to disqualify sitting members of parliament {Chaper 9.167(b)}

I’m hopeful that the ECB looks into this matter immediately, before some of us, eager MPs, get ourselves in trouble.

The winner takes it all

I commemorated the first anniversary of our country’s first general elections by pouring over the election results. And, in doing so, I was reminded of the pain and disappointment on that historic day. I was also reminded of the dangers of our electoral system.

Of the 253,012 votes cast, 83,522 were cast in favour of PDP. That works out to a little over 33% of the total votes cast. The rest, that’s about 67%, were cast in favour of DPT.

But PDP won only two of the 47 constituencies. That’s barely 4% of the total number of constituencies. So although PDP won 33% of the total votes cast, it won only 4% of the total number of seats in the National Assembly.

Now what if Dasho Damcho Dorji, contesting Khatoe-Laya, had received 4 less votes? He got 349 votes, so 4 less would mean that he would have got 345. And his opponent, who got 343 votes would have gotten 347. So PDP would have lost Khatoe-Laya.

And what if I, Tshering Tobgay, contesting Sombaykha, had received 190 less votes? I got 1224 votes, so 190 less means 1034 votes. And my counterpart , who got 846 votes, would have gotten 1036 votes. So PDP would have lost Sombaykha too.

4 less votes in Khatoe-Laya and 190 less in Sombaykha would have meant that PDP would have gotten a total of 83328 votes, not 83522. And 83328 out of 253012 works out to 32.93%, that’s almost 33%. So, if that had happened, and theoretically it could have, PDP would have won 33% of the popular vote, but would have had no seats in the National Assembly. And we wouldn’t have had an opposition party.

In fact, in theory, PDP could have won as much as 49% of the total votes cast, and not won a single constituency. That would have happened if PDP had lost every constituency by a very small margin. And DPT? It would have enjoyed an absolute majority in the national assembly although it would have won only 51% of the total votes.

Why am painting such a bleak picture? Because we must accept that our system can produce such an undesirable result. This is one of the disadvantages of a first past the post or winner-takes-all system.

But many countries, including India and the USA, use this system. True. And, theoretically speaking, such outcomes are also possible in those countries. Possible, but very unlikely, because they have a large number of constituencies.

In our country, however, with only 47 constituencies and a small voter population, the likely hood that a party can win 49% of the total vote and yet not win a single constituency, should not be ignored.

I’ve learnt that politics is dangerous. And I’ve also learnt that our electoral system is very dangerous.