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.

Real accountability

Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba, the works and human settlement minster, was reportedly “shocked and alarmed” at news that his ministry was underutilizing its budget allocations. The Ministry of Works and Human Settlement has apparently used barely15% of this financial year’s budget although more than half the year has already elapsed.

Is Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba really shocked and alarmed? I hope not. After all, we expect our ministers to have a good idea of how their respective ministries are performing or underperforming, as the case may be. So if he is really shocked, if he is really alarmed, we should be concerned. In fact, we should be horrified. We should be appalled that he does not know what’s going on in his own ministry.

The minister has assured us that he will look into the matter personally, and that he will hold “respective individuals accountable.” That’s good. We desperately need accountability. But accountability, real accountability, begins with the head of the organization, in this case with the minister himself.

So if his ministry is underperforming, and underperforming badly, Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba must accept full responsibility.

But if, because of him, other organisations are also suffering, he must take even bigger responsibility. And that, unfortunately, is what seems to be happening with the Thimphu and Phuentsholing city corporations. The city corporations are not under the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement. They are autonomous. Yet their budgets seem to be controlled by the ministry. If that is so, Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba must take full responsibility for encroaching on the powers of local government and for undermining their performance.

Shock and alarm will not improve the performance of the ministry or the two city corporations. For that, there’s only one remedy: accountability.

No. No. No.

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! [Continue Reading…]

Constitution matters

“Constitution doesn’t imprison and shackle”. With these five words the prime minister argued that the government could raise tshogpa salaries without consulting the Pay Commission.

Indeed, the Constitution does not imprison; the Constitution does not shackle. That is not the purpose of the Constitution. And we know that.

We also know that the purpose of the Constitution is to provide a set of rules outlining how our kingdom must be governed. These rules define the responsibilities of the various institutions of the State – the monarchy, the executive, the legislature, the judiciary, constitutional bodies, local governments, and others – and authorize powers to these institutions so that they can fulfill their respective responsibilities.

But none of the institutions, not a single one of them, enjoys unlimited powers. That’s why the rules also specify checks and balances limiting the scope of their authority. These checks and balances are intended to minimize the risks of mistakes from being made when governing our kingdom. They are also intended to prevent dangerous concentrations of power and authority.

So yes, the Constitution does not “imprison and shackle” the prime minister and the government. But whether they like it or not, the Constitution does subject them to various checks and balances to ensure that our kingdom is governed well.

But it wasn’t just those five words. A story by Bhutan Observer shows that a lot more words were used, and excuses made, to argue that the Pay Commission did not have to be involved to raise salaries.  It’s worth reading the entire article again. So I’m reproducing it here, along with my comments which I’ve inserted, in parenthesis and in red, inside the article.

[Continue Reading…]

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

More local government

Wanted: power and authority

The elections for local government are over. So soon, and for the first time, we will have local governments – thromde tshogdes, gewog tshogdes and dzongkhag tshogdus – elected and empowered by the Constitution according to which:

Power and authority shall be decentralized 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 local governments that were recently elected will serve for five years. But the first elected parliament and the current government have less than two years left in office. So it’s important that the government, parliament and local governments work together, as soon as possible, to reach a common understanding of the Constitutional requirement that “Power and authority shall be decentralized and devolved to elected Local Governments…”

That’s why, yesterday, the opposition party proposed that financial authority should be decentralized to local governments. That is, they should be provided annual block grants which they themselves would decide how and for what to use. Obviously, rules would first need to be framed defining limits, outlining procedures, and fixing accountability.

The current practice of approving annual budgets submitted by the dzongkhags is cumbersome. And it is restrictive. That’s part of the reason why local governments have not been able to make full use of their capital budgets.

Instead, give them annual grants. To begin with, the grants could be more or less equal to the budgets they currently receive. And what they receive is a pittance. So the government should be more than ready to give local government’s that much financial autonomy.

But the government is not ready. They argued that annual grants and annual budgets mean the same thing. They argued that decentralization and devolution of power and authority must take place incrementally. And they argued that the Local Government Act requires gewogs and dzongkhags to submit budget proposals for the government’s approval.

The government should reconsider. They should refer to Article 22 Section 18(c) of the Constitution which states that:

Local Government’s shall be entitled to adequate financial resources for the Government in the form of annual grants

And to Article 22 Section 18(d) according to which:

Local Government’s shall be allocated a proportion of national revenue to ensure self-reliant and self-sustaining units of local self-government

 

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.”

Parliament rejects LG bill

BREAKING NEWS The Parliament, this morning, did not pass the Local Government (amendment) Bill. Of the 68 MPs present, 44 voted to for the bill, 23 voted against, and 1 abstained. The Hon’ble Speaker did not cast a vote. According to the Constitution, he can only cast a deciding vote.

A bill is passed by simple majority when it is debated in the individual houses (the National Council and National Assembly). But, if the two houses cannot agree on the provisions of a bill, that bill is debated in a joint sitting. In which case, two-thirds of the members must support the bill to endorse it.

Illegal grants

Our poll says that the CDG is illegal. 52% of the participants think that the CDG is unconstitutional. And 18% feel that it is very bad; that it will breed corruption. 15% are suspicious that the CDG will be used to win the next elections. And only 15% feel that the CDG is a good idea; that the grant will allow our MPs to fulfill their promises.

33 people participated in the poll.

The result is obvious. An overwhelming majority of us feel that the CDG is not a good idea. And most of us are convinced that it is illegal, that it is unconstitutional.

So, if the CDG is not good for Bhutan. And it is illegal. What should we do? That’s the purpose of our next poll.

Make your presence felt. And your opinions count. Take the poll.