South Asia

In Major Upset, Bhutan Voters Defeat Ruling PDP in First Round of National Elections

Since 2008, voters in the Himalayan nation have always opted for a change of government, but unlike in 2013, relations with India did not become a factor.

New Delhi: With voters coming out in large numbers, Bhutan’s ruling People’s Democratic Party was defeated and failed to qualify for the final round of the country’s third National Assembly elections in a result that has shocked observers and politicians alike.

Bhutan went to the polls for the primary round of the National Assembly elections on Saturday, September 15. Nearly 66% of the electorate cast their votes – a higher turnout than the 55.3% seen in the primary round in 2013.

According to the Election Commission of Bhutan’s official results, the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) came first with 31.5% of the votes, followed closely by the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) with 30.6%.

The PDP came a surprising third, with 27.2% of votes – which automatically knocks it out from the general round of elections to the lower house of parliament on Oct 18.

According to Bhutan’s constitution, only two political parties can take part in the final round of general elections.

The fourth party, Bhutan Kuen-Nyam (BKP) got only 9.7% of the total votes.

It was anticipated that postal ballots – especially with a large turnout among the high number of registered postal voters – could be decisive. And they were.

This time, postal voters accounted for 30% of the total registered 438,663 voters, compared to just 12.7% in the 2013 National Assembly elections. The turnout among postal voters was 81.1%, much higher than the overall voter turnout of 66.3%.

The provision of postal voting is largely extended to civil servants, security personnel and their families, corporate employees, overseas Bhutanese and voters with special needs.

After voting ended at 5 p.m., postal ballot results were the first to roll in. As the initial leads came in, it was clear that the DNT – which in 2013 had been knocked out in the primary round itself – was doing exceptionally well, followed by the DPT, with PDP. Among postal ballots, the DNT secured 37,556 votes and PDP was a distant third at 23,703 votes.

Even when the EVM results streamed in, the ranking of parties was not disturbed. PDP got 31% of all votes from EVM machines, but the DNT was not too far behind at 30%.

Speaking to The Wire, DNT spokesperson Tandi Dorji said that he and his colleagues were still processing the implications of the results. “We have worked hard in the campaign and look forward to serving the country,” he said.

DNT party chief Lotay Tshering is a urologist, who led the campaign with the theme of “narrowing” the wealth gap and tackling unemployment.

Even he found the PDP’s departure in the first round difficult to digest. “We are very surprised.. We expected PDP to do well,” he said.

Similarly, DPT president Pema Gyamtsho, who was the leader of the opposition in the previous National Assembly, told The Wire candidly that he wasn’t completely sure yet about the reason for PDP’s loss. “Maybe, this is the anti-incumbency factor,” he suggested.

On the results, he said, “We gave our best.. the people have spoken”.

Less than an hour after the final constituency results were in, Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay conceded the results of the elections.

“The people of Bhutan have spoken. And the People’s Democratic Party graciously accepts their decision. The will of the people must prevail in a democracy,” he said.

In the 2013 National Assembly primary round, the incumbent DPT had won 45% of the votes, with PDP coming a distant second with 33%. However, the PDP won the final round in an upset win, after engaging with DNT and pulling in their voter base.

Bhutanese voters have acted to change their government in every general election since the first one in 2008.

Even in the April elections to the apolitical upper house, known as the National Council, the electorate had signalled that it was ready for a change. Out of the 25 member body, only five sitting members were re-elected.

India not a factor this time

In contrast to the 2013 elections, Bhutan’s relations with India did not figure prominently during the campaign by the four parties.

In the run-up to the 2013 polls, Bhutan was hit suddenly by high fuel prices, after India withdrew subsidies over kerosene and cooking gas. The Indian government claimed that the withdrawal was an “unfortunate technical lapse” due to the non-renewal of an agreement. Despite Indian denials, the perception persisted that New Delhi wanted to ‘punish’ the ruling DPT for taking steps like the meeting of then prime minister Jigme Thinley with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao at Rio de Janeiro in 2012.

During that campaign, the PDP had accused the DPT of presiding over “deteriorating” ties with India. The DPT pushed back by asserting that relations with India should be kept “beyond and above party politics at all times”.

Five years later, India did not figure at all in the elections, beyond the general political consensus that relations have to be strengthened. This despite Bhutan having witnessed the armies of China and India standing eye-ball to eye-ball on its border region for 73 days in 2017.

In the DPT’s manifesto for the 2018 elections, the separate section on foreign policy mentions that the party “remains committed to maintaining and furthering the excellent relations with the people and the Government of India”.

If elected, the DPT had also pledged to execute at least three hydropower projects and “pursue others with the government of India”, with an emphasis on more balanced regional distribution of the mega projects. It has proposed to ramp up electricity generation from 1606 MW to a minimum of 10,000 MW in 2030.

The DPT had also stated that it would explore the “feasibility of using the Brahmaputra river port in India as a third-country exports and imports route for Eastern Bhutan”.

The DNT’s manifesto does not have a separate section on external relations, but India gets mentioned several times, especially in the context of diversification of the economy.

In the section on the economy, the DNT expressed concern over the export basket, with hydropower exports dominating this sector. The party claimed that since Bhutan’s economy is “driven by investments in the hydropower sector”, economic growth remains narrowly based and unable to create jobs for a young aspiring population. The party had also pointed out over 75% of Bhutan’s expanding external debt is accounted by hydropower loans.

“We are determined more than any other party to diversify the economy by accelerating private sector growth and investing in agriculture, mining, manufacturing and service,” said the DNT manifesto.

A similar concern in parallel with trade de­bt is the huge external debt, which currently stands at 170 billion BTN, or Bhutanese ngultrum, as of today. Of this amount, as per the State of the Nation Report (2018), hydropower loans comprise 132 billion BTN, while the rest is non-hydropower loan of 37 billion BTN. One ngultrum is worth one Indian rupee.

The DNT pointed to India accounting for an 80% share of exports from Bhutan as a weak point for the economy, which made it “highly vulnerable to exogenous shocks”.

The party also promised to review current fuel imports from India, so as to reduce dependence on fossil fuel and improve the balance of payment situation.

All the parties were silent over the BBIN motor vehicles agreement in their manifestos. The PDP government had tried to pass the relevant legislation, but it was defeated in the National Council. With popular opposition against the agreement, Bhutan withdrew from the agreement.

However, there was hope in New Delhi that Bhutan could re-join after the political heat from the general elections subsided. With the PDP not in the picture anymore, it is not likely that the next Bhutan government will move with alacrity on signing up to the regional connectivity agreement.