By Rabi Dahal
Bhutan today has five political parties registered to the Election Commission of Bhutan. Media reports suggest that two parties are in the making. If registered, Bhutan will have seven political parties, for little over one-third of a million voters. Voters will have seven parties to choose from in the primaries and vote-base will be fragmented. The state has to spend more to fund these parties’ activities.
With just two political parties in 2008, parties have grown around a particular leader or leaders or as the fragmentation of an existing political party. Most of these parties are formed just to change the governing system not to deliver promises, leave alone to implement their objectives or ideologies.
Looking at the 2013 elections, the new political parties face tough challenges of developing and solidifying a party identity and constituency and developing party’s discipline within the party. Other challenge is getting suitable candidates representing 47 constituencies to be able to contest the primaries. These young group of people who form political parties may have little experience in being held accountable to voters and may not have resources to establish internal party structures to organise themselves and become a democratic entity. Too many political parties also fragment capable candidates.
It is democracy so anybody can put out their views but at the end of the day, if you read through some of the political parties’ policies and ideologies they all seem to say the same thing. If the party ideology revolves around same issues and the manifesto reads same, what’s the reason for having so many parties for small population, where less than 60 percent of the eligible voters vote, looking at the past elections?
We cannot and shouldn’t suppress individual rights on the freedom of association, which is one of the basic tenants of our democracy. But everybody sold ema datshi in 2013. And everybody will be selling ema datshi in 2018. We won’t know if they are telling us processed cheese is better, or local cottage cheese is better because they will put all in one bowl and give us.
A political party generally refers to an organisation that mobilises voters on behalf of a common set of interests or ideologies. Seven or more political parties are too many for a country like Bhutan. High numbers of political parties make it difficult for the voters to differentiate political ideologies and policies. So it can be reduced to maximum of four major national parties that can mobilise or educate potential voters of their platforms.
Again most of these parties probably share similar objectives and ideologies which most of them can merge, align or forge an alliance purposely to reduce the number and to be more effective.
Political Parties play an important role in political life by setting policy agendas, nominating candidates for public office, monitoring the work of elected representatives and organising and directing human and material resources toward a common goal.
The main aim of the most parties [as seen in 2013 elections] here are to quickly stand for election without even be in touch with its grassroots, that means without creating sense of trust with many voters in different constituencies, hoping that their educational credential, or their parent’s influence in the villages, may automatically uplift their personal political objectives. Thus, voters who follow such leaders can vote without choice.
In societies already rooted by cultural and social cleavages, and with no clear political platform presented to voters, voting patterns inevitably can still generally reflect societal and other primordial loyalties rather than a true exercise in democratic preferment.
In the minds of majority of the Bhutanese, especially in this time of transition and fledgling democracy, no one likes to see the test of a functioning of democratic system once every five on many parties as sign of democracy, but in how the running of government affect their daily lives in terms of basic needs such as education, health services, security, food security, and employment.
For a country like Bhutan, where the registered political parties get funds from the state to contest elections, with the limited revenue we have, it will be a huge burden to provide public funding to all these seven or more parties to run their activities. So, some of these parties may use this as an excuse to solicit funds from illegal sources to run their operations. Giving public fund to seven or more political parties to run their activities means enriching those party leaders while neglecting schools and hospitals because at the end of the day they will not even listen to their voters demands.
With these seven parties, target audience with be segmented base on their ethnic groups or personal loyalty rather than geographic or demographic segmentation. Voluntary contribution and membership too will be divided. Each party will get a lesser share of membership and fee. If all or a substantial amount of the party fund comes directly from the state rather than from voluntary sources, political parties risk losing their independence and become organs of the state, thereby losing their ties to the civil society.
In the past nine years, where two different parties formed the government, both the parties were unable to fulfill most of their pledges, some of which includes the most basic services to the people.
Because only two parties can contest the main elections and form the government and the opposition, four or less parties [two can function from outside the parliament] can ensure that the government don’t exclude the spirit of democracy such as freedom of speech and other basic human rights, the rule of law, and accountability.
Lesser and effective political parties will guarantee popular access to the basic social and economic needs of the people and move them in the direction of democratic empowerment. Lesser parties also mean lesser communal and familial divide along political lines. It will also encourage citizens to identify with a particular party ideology and develop a stake in the survival of the system.
The election commission of Bhutan, therefore, shouldn’t be too lenient in issuing certificate of registration to new entrants.
( The contributor is the former editor of Bhutan Observer)