The third democratic elections in Bhutan will be the most inclusive till date. The National Council (NC) elections that are scheduled to take place on April 20 will see, for the first time since the 2008 parliamentary elections, mobile polling stations/facilitation booths in every district.
Maximum postal ballot engagement with non-residential Bhutanese and increased participation of people with special needs is also expected. The special needs group, according to the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB), includes the differently-abled, prisoners, and quarantined medical patients.
Half the total 0.7 million Bhutanese are registered voters and at least 80,000 will avail the postal ballot (PB) facility in the elections this year. The ECB does not have a confirmed number of voters in the special needs category yet, but has said that their district electoral officers are compiling the figures.
In all, there will be 64 facilitation booths set up across the country for in-country PB voters. The booths will be set up in areas in districts that have the highest concentration of PB voters. Thimphu, the capital, will have eight booths – the most number of facilitation booths as it is home to an estimated 60% of the PB voter population. Since all the ministries and a majority of government agencies are located in the capital, there is a higher density of postal ballot voters, says the ECB. Many Bhutanese from various districts live in the capital for employment.
The facilitation booths will open eight days prior to poll day. They will be open from April 12-14 after which the PB will be sent to the returning officers in their respective districts. According to electoral laws, only returning officers are allowed to count the postal ballots. The booths, as the name suggests, will facilitate the voting process by making postal ballots available to voters who may be living in districts other than the ones they are registered voters at.
Now, in-country voters can choose to vote via postal ballot from wherever they are instead of travelling to their respective districts to vote on polling day as it happened in the last two parliamentary elections. Only government employees and their families could avail of the postal ballot via mail earlier. Private employees had to make a special request the ECB for postal ballots.
With these facilitation booths, Bhutanese whether government, private, or unemployed, will no longer need to do that. All that is required of a potential postal ballot voter is to register to vote by postal ballot, then walk into the closest facilitation booth, express their interest to vote, and provide their voter ids or citizenship identity cards. Since a presiding officer will be present in the booths, the need for witnesses for PB voters has also been made redundant.
The ECB is allowing all non-residential Bhutanese who qualify to be postal voters to also participate in the 2018 elections. More so, all costs will be borne by it. Considering the small nation has limited financial resources, ECB’s 2018 overseas postal voter initiative is a big deal. One postal voter package costs Rs 4,500, excluding return postal costs. So far, one thousand Bhutanese have registered as overseas PB voters, a majority of them from Australia.
In the first elections in 2008, only ex-country students and government employees were allowed to be PB voters. In the second elections in 2013, overseas postal voters included Bhutanese of any occupation living in the United States after the “guideline for extending postal ballot facility to Bhutanese citizens residing, studying, or working in the US” was adopted in 2012. The same guideline has been reviewed to increase overseas postal voter participation this year. Bhutanese anywhere in the world if eligible to vote, are being allowed to register until the end of February. All Bhutanese embassies, consulates, and associations are expected to assist the ECB with overseas postal ballot voting. This well-intentioned endeavour is expected to cost the ECB at least Rs 3 million.
This scale of engagement was absent in the last two rounds of parliamentary elections. During the 2013 elections, from about 79,000 potential PB voters, only half registered. Of that, only half of the registered voters finally ended up voting.
The head of ECB’s Postal Ballot unit Namgay Tshering said, “We have learnt from experience and are now hoping to realise 100% postal ballot participation in the NC elections.”
Besides postal ballot rejections due to incomplete information or mistakes, no concrete reasons are known for the less than ideal postal ballot participation. ECB is hoping that it was hitherto a matter of inconvenience and is hence pulling out all the stops to ensure the postal ballot experience in 2018 is the most painless. The facilitation booths and registration of overseas postal voters via a Google form or a QR code are happening for the first time to give Bhutanese within and outside the country fewer reasons to not vote.
Phub Dorji, a Bhutanese student living in the US is a first-time voter. He says he has applied to vote by postal ballot and is excited to vote even if he hasn’t zeroed in on a candidate to support just yet. Another PB voter in the United Kingdom, Dorji Wangchuk, who availed of the PB facility in the earlier elections, says that the overall election will be different this year from previous years because of the sheer number of candidates contesting. Wangchuk’s district has nine NC aspirants. The highest number is 26 from Dagana district. The ECB has said that it cannot yet confirm the number of aspiring candidates as the last date for declaration or withdrawal of candidacy in March 20. However the number of NC aspirants is unprecedented. There are more than a hundred candidates aspiring for the twenty National Council seats. In the last elections, there were less than 70 candidates.
The National Council parliamentary elections will also see increased participation of Bhutanese with special needs. ECB has recorded at present, 3,754 differently-abled potential voters. About half of this number has voted in previous elections. Although another thousand are registered, they have not voted so far. The ECB intends to reach these voters through the mobile facilitation booths. Election officials will travel door-to-door to help differently-abled voters cast their vote. They will provide the same door-to-door service to prisoners as well as isolated medical patients at facilities like the tuberculosis hospital in the capital Thimphu.
Voting is not mandatory, but the ECB believes ease of access and convenience will encourage better democratic participation.
Namgay Zam is an independent journalist. She was formerly a television anchor and editor in English for the Bhutan Broadcasting Service. She tweets @namgayzam.