The 800,000 inhabitants of Switzerland-sized Bhutan, “Land of the Thunder Dragon”, got television in 1999 and democracy arrived only in 2008 when its “dragon kings” ceded absolute power. Bhutan has tried to shield itself from the downsides of modernisation, striving for Gross National Happiness, being carbon-negative and keeping tourist numbers down with a daily fee of $250 per visitor in high season.
Bhutan is considered a buffer between China and India. The country, cloistered for many years, started opening up slowly to the world over a decade ago. The king is still widely respected and holds a lot of power but the country transitioned to a democracy in 2007 when it held its first parliamentary elections. This year, voters in Bhutan went to the polls on September 15 2018 in the first round of and the second round on 18 October. It was only the third election in the small Himalayan nation wedged between rivals India and China.
Bhutan’s voters have handed an overwhelming victory to a new party (Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, DNT) headed by a surgeon in only the third democratic election held by the Himalayan kingdom. It may be noted that the new Prime Minister-designate, Lotay Tsherin, earned his Medical degree, and BCPS, Dhaka University, Bangladesh and later MBA, Canberra University, Australia.
The ruling People’s Democratic Party of former Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay (Harvard educated) came third in the first round of voting, unexpectedly failing to advance to the second round and resulting in it losing all 32 seats.
The second round was a contest between the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party DPT), the only other party with parliamentary representation, and the unrepresented Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), which received the most votes in 2018.
Corruption, rural poverty, youth unemployment and the prevalence of criminal gangs remain challenges, however. “I think the core issues in 2018 are the same as 2013 and 2008 — the economy, rural development, infrastructure and, to some extent, tourism,” said Tenzing Lamsang, editor of The Bhutanese daily.
Bhutan is heavily dependent on its neighbour India for aid, infrastructure investments, imports and as an export market, in particular for electricity it generates using hydroelectric power.
The defeat of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) of Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay in Bhutan is seen as a major upset in an election being closely watched by India and China.
The Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), a relatively new party which was formed in 2013 and came third in the elections that year, won first place in 2018, Bhutan’s third elections, taking 92,722 out of 291,098 votes in the first round of voting.
The Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) came in second with 90,020 votes, while Mr Tobgay’s party won 79,883 votes. According to the Bhutanese Constitution, only two parties will face off in the last round of general elections, which has been set for Oct 18.
The Bhutanese, a local newspaper, called it a “major election upset” while another newspaper, Kuensel, noted that people had voted for change and anti-incumbency had played a big role.
The left-of-centre DNT, which pulled off the surprise win, is led by surgeon-turned-politician Lotay Tshering, whose campaign platform comprised development issues, particularly health access and facilities. These issues, according to analysts, struck a chord with voters, especially in the rural areas.
“This is a typical example where election and results can be totally unpredictable,” said Dr Tshering, an analyst. “I am more convinced that improvement in healthcare services, especially those in rural areas, cannot be more emphasised.”
There has been some disquiet in India, which has traditional links with the small country, over the defeat of Mr Tobgay, with whom it had close ties.
“India needs to boost efforts as Bhutan polls spring a surprise,” said a headline in The Times of India while other reports highlighted how a “pro-India party” had been knocked out.
During the last election campaign in 2013 India abruptly withdrew subsidies for kerosene and cooking gas imports, in what was seen as an attempt to ensure a change of government. India is unhappy about China’s growing influence in Bhutan. Last year India and China became embroiled in a military standoff over the Doklam plateau high in the Himalayas claimed by both China and Bhutan.
India itself does not claim the territory but has a military presence in Bhutan. It stepped in to prevent Chinese border guards from building a road there, prompting Beijing to accuse it of trespassing on Chinese soil.
Until 2007, India had oversight over Bhutan’s relations with other countries. This changed after the two countries amended their friendship treaty, giving Bhutan full freedom to pursue ties with other countries. While people in Bhutan are appreciative of the country’s close ties with India, there are those who feel that Bhutan also needs to establish diplomatic links with China, which has been trying to make inroads into the small country.
In 2013, India cut fuel subsidies to Bhutan suddenly, triggering speculation that the move was a warning to Bhutan’s first prime minister, Mr Jigme Y Thinley, not to establish links with China.
In a sign of continuing Chinese interest in Bhutan, China’s ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui visited the country.
The debate on ties with China deepened following the Doklam crisis in June 2017 which led to a standoff between India and China on the Doklam plateau. The row arose when Indian border guards intervened as China was building a road in an area claimed by both it and Bhutan, close to a narrow stretch of land in India known as the Siliguri corridor. The corridor connects seven north-eastern Indian states to the mainland. The issue was resolved after nearly a month.
However, analysts in India believe the close ties between India and Bhutan will continue, and that any winning party would have the blessings of the king. Former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh has reportedly said the maturing democracy in Bhutan was a positive sign.
“I don’t think we should get worried. This time round, India was not an election issue. They are becoming a truly democratic society. One party loses and another takes over. It’s good news for democracy,” said Mr Mansingh.
“China, of course, has so far been frustrated in wanting to have close diplomatic ties with Bhutan. But sooner or later Bhutan, despite the traditional friendship (with India), has to chart its own course in international affairs,” he added.
Barrister Haru ur Rashid, Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.