Written by Enrico D’Ambrogio
Bhutan, a long-isolated South Asian monarchy, is mostly known internationally for the concept of ‘gross national happiness’. Since 2008 it has been undergoing a king-driven transition to democracy.
From absolute to constitutional monarchy
Bhutan, a small kingdom located between India and China in the Himalayan mountains, with an estimated population of 753 900, is one of the least developed countries (LDCs), highly dependent on Indian aid.
The monarchy in Bhutan came to power in 1907, unifying a previous dual administrative system (religious and civil). In the 1970s, the fourth ‘Druk Gyalpo’ (Dragon King) Jigme Singye Wangchuck launched the concept of gross national happiness (GNH), replacing the notion of gross national product (GNP). The Bhutanese concept of GNH measures development in terms of general well-being, rather than in terms of socio-economic indicators, as with GNP. The notion received international recognition on 19 July 2011, when the UN General Assembly adopted a non-binding resolution proposing the use of GNH as an international development indicator. The same king, probably inspired by the regional context, initiated the transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy.
Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is the fifth Druk Gyalpo since November 2008 – his father had already abdicated in his favour in December 2006. The same year, 2008, Bhutan adopted its first constitution and held its first ever elections, making it one of the world’s youngest democracies. The constitution grants huge powers to the Druk Gyalpo: he can sack the prime minister or his cabinet, and convene extraordinary sessions. He furthermore has wide legislative powers, including the right to block legislation passed by both chambers of parliament, through his power of assent on new legislation. The Parliament cannot amend any of his constitutional powers; this may only be done by means of a referendum. However, three quarters of the Parliament can adopt a motion for him to abdicate, which would later be submitted to a referendum. The Constitution establishes that the Druk Gyalpo retires at 65.
The Parliament and the electoral system
Bhutan has a bicameral system. The upper house is the National Council, which consists of 25 members: 20 each representing a Dzongkhag (district), and five appointed directly by the Druk Gyalpo. The lower house is the National Assembly, which consists of a maximum of 55 members (47 in the current term, of which three are women), directly elected from the districts. Members of both chambers serve a five-year term.
Elections are conducted according to the ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) system, in two rounds. In the primary round, no party is allowed to field candidates and the polls are conducted among all of the parties. The two parties which gain the highest number of votes in the first round get to contest parliamentary seats in the general election: the constitution prohibits the formation of a coalition government. The winning party forms the government headed by a prime minister; the losing party occupies the opposition benches in the National Assembly.
The state covers the costs of the election campaign. The Election Commission organises forums where candidates interact with voters, while there are no rallies or posters. No independent candidates are allowed to take part in the National Assembly elections. On the contrary, only candidates not affiliated to a political party can take part in elections for the National Council and the local governments.
Prospective candidates for the parliamentary elections must hold a university degree, cannot be older than 65 years, and cannot be married to a foreigner. Civil servants cannot be elected, either. The country’s monks and nuns – whose number is estimated at around 30 000 – do not enjoy any political rights.
The elections in 2013
The second parliamentary elections in the country’s history took place in 2013. The EU sent an election expert mission. Elections for the 20 seats in the National Council were held on 13 April. No women candidates were elected. Elections for the National Assembly took place between 31 May and 13 July. On 1 July, in the middle of the election campaign, India suddenly announced the withdrawal of its fuel subsidies. The timing suggested the possibility of an Indian political act, though New Delhi has always refuted this interpretation and the subsidies were restored shortly after the elections. China claimed that India had wanted to influence the election outcome, reacting to the constructive steps the Bhutanese Government had taken in recent years to resolve its border issue with China. The topic of Indo-Bhutan relations dominated the remainder of the heated election debate, and contributed to turnout increasing to 66.1% in the second round. Tshering Tobgay has been prime minister since July 2013.
The People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the governing political party, holds 32 seats in the National Assembly. It was the first party registered in Bhutan, in March 2007. The PDP is regarded as progressive and pro-business.
Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) was created in 2007. In March 2008, it won a landslide victory in the first general elections ever held. In 2013, after winning the first round by a large margin (44.5% against 32.5% by PDP), it suffered a defeat in the general election (45.1% against 54.9% to the PDP) and only obtained 15 seats in the National Assembly. It is considered a conservative and royalist faction.
In 2013, three new parties – describing themselves as ‘centre-left and Social-Democratic’ – were registered by the Election Commission:
Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) – With 17.04% of votes in the primary round, it finished third and therefore could not participate in the general election. It is a ‘people-centric political party’, promoting social democracy.
Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT) – It obtained 5.90% of votes in the primary round. To ‘minimise inequalities of income, concentration of wealth, and promote equitable distribution of public facilities among individuals and people living in different regions of the country’, is one of its objectives.
Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP) – This party was disqualified from participating in the primary round, following a controversial ruling by Bhutan’s Election Commission, due to a lack of candidates in two constituencies – a common problem among political factions, considering the strict rules on eligibility, especially the requirement to hold a degree. BKP has, among its objectives, the promotion of an egalitarian society without class distinctions, the eradication of poverty and fostering of stronger ties with India.
A number of political parties are in exile and are banned from participating in the election process. Some of them represent the Nepalese ethnic minority, whose rights have been denied for decades on the basis of a restricted concept of citizenship, and many of whom have been banished from Bhutanese territory. The constitution bans the establishment of parties on the basis of religion, ethnicity, or region.
EU, the European Parliament and Bhutan
As a least developed country (LDC), Bhutan benefits from the ‘Everything but Arms‘ programme. There is no EU Delegation in Bhutan, with relations under the responsibility of the EU Delegation in India. The new EU-Bhutan cooperation programme for the period 2014-20 (known as the Multiannual Indicative Programme (MIP)), amounts to a total of €42 million – triple the amount of the previous programme.
The European Parliament’s Delegation for relations with South Asia (DSAS) covers Bhutan. The fifth EP-Bhutan Interparliamentary meeting between DSAS members and their Bhutanese counterparts took place in Bhutan’s capital Thimpu on 30 October 2013. The visit’s programme involved MEPs having high-level meetings, including with the Druk Gyalpo. During the meeting with Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, a plea was made to allow Nepalese ethnic refugees to return to Bhutan on humanitarian grounds.
This issue has been raised several times in resolutions adopted by the European Parliament related to Nepal: the Resolution of 13 June 2002 on the situation in Nepal, the Resolution of 14 June 2001 on the aftermath of the massacre of the royal family in Nepal, and the Resolution of 7 September 2000 on Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. MEPs also commended Bhutan for having abolished the death penalty in 2004.