regular-article-logo Tuesday, 16 April 2024

Bhutan National Assembly polls: PDP secures landslide victory in primary round

According to an Election Commission of Bhutan press release, the PDP bagged over 42.5 per cent votes followed by the Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP) which finished second with 19.5 per cent votes

Devadeep Purohit Calcutta Published 02.12.23, 06:45 AM
Logo of the People's Democratic Party (Bhutan).

Logo of the People's Democratic Party (Bhutan). Wikipedia

The People’s Democratic Party secured a landslide victory in the primary round of the fourth National Assembly elections in Bhutan. The outcome announced on Friday is likely to make New Delhi happy as it signals the possibility of a friendly party at the helm in the Himalayan country after the final round of the polls which is scheduled to be held on January 9.Five parties, the highest in the history of Bhutan since the country’s transition to parliamentary democracy in 2008, took part in Thursday’s primaries. A total of 3,13,162 voters out of 4,97,058 eligible and registered voters around 63 per cent exercised their franchise.

According to an Election Commission of Bhutan press release, the PDP bagged over 42.5 per cent votes followed by the Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP) which finished second with 19.5 per cent votes.


“With the formal declaration of the results of the PR (primary round), the Election Commission of Bhutan invites the two political parties that secured the highest and next highest total number of votes to formally nominate one candidate each in all the 47 National Assembly Demkhongs (constituencies) to contest in the general elections,” announced the poll panel.

Elections in the fledgling democracy which has around one-fourth electors in comparison to Calcutta South that has over 17 lakh voters has always been of great interest to New Delhi because of its strategic location as a buffer between India and China.

The interest grew exponentially in recent months after Bhutan and China held their 25th round of border talks in Beijing where Beijing placed on the table a proposal to “swap” areas in Doklam, under Bhutanese control at present, with areas in Jakarlung and Pasamlung, which are under Chinese control. The Doklam trijunction where Indian and Chinese troops were engaged in a two-month stand-off in the summer of 2017 is of extreme strategic importance for India because it cuts very close to the Siliguri corridor, a narrow strip referred to as the Chicken’s Neck that connects the northeastern states to the Indian mainland.

As both Bhutan and China agreed to conclude their boundary negotiations and discussed the possibilities of establishing diplomatic relations, India has been wary of Thimphu-Beijing negotiations.

“Against this backdrop, the possibility of PDP’s rise to power in Thimphu must make New Delhi relieved at least for some time,” said a source in Thimphu. Multiple sources in Thimphu said that PDP president Tshering Tobgay, who was the Prime Minister of Bhutan between 2013 and 2018, developed a special relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Ahmedabad for the 2016 edition of the Vibrant Gujarat summit where he charmed the audience including the likes of Mukesh Ambani, Gautam Adani and Adi Godrej by referring to his visit as an “economic pilgrimage”.

Back in 2015, when Mamata Banerjee visited Bhutan, Tobgay drove her around in Thimphu, a gesture that endeared her to the Bengal chief minister. Banerjee personally invited her to the annual business summit in Bengal.

“Given the special relationship between India and Bhutan, no political party can afford an anti-India stand and all of them want a good working relationship with New Delhi.... But there is little doubt that India would be happy to see the Harvard-educated politician at the helm,” said another source in Thimphu.

The PDP pitch in the run-up to the primary round also hinted that Tobgay has plans to fall back on India to revive the Bhutanese economy, which is going through a stage of slowdown because of an entire gamut of factors, ranging from falling foreign exchange reserves to run away inflation. The stress in the economy primarily dependent on hydropower and tourism has triggered a mass exodus from Bhutan prompting questions on the relevance of the country’s guiding idea of Gross National Happiness, a measure of well-being broader than that reflected in the gross domestic product in today’s context.

In its poll manifesto, the PDP promised that its government would set up a high-powered and dynamic Economic Development Board (EDB)with the Prime Minister as its chairperson to attract and fast-track Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs). Tobgay has also been claiming that the PDP government will mobilise Nu.15 billion (Rs 1,500 crore as Bhutanese currency is pegged to Indian Rupee) and utilise this stimulus fund to boost various sectors of the economy.

The PDP manifesto has also promised a relook at the tourism policy to give a big push to this sector which heavily relies on arrivals from India if voted to power. “It is clear that the PDP’s economic revival plan hinges on India... So, Tobgay’s party is unlikely to do anything to antagonise New Delhi, which means a quid-pro-quo arrangement will be in place if they come to power,” said a source.

While most political observers have begun plotting the contours of the possible India-Bhutan relationship after the PDP’s victory in the final round, some prefer to be cautious referring to the possibility of supporters of the three other parties the DPT, the DTT and the DNT swinging in favour of the BTP to turn the tables in the final round. Unlike in some other neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, where New Delhi is often accused of favouring the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League in the elections, New Delhi generally doesn’t get involved in the internal political affairs in Bhutan. “But now that Tobgay has emerged as the frontrunner, it remains to be seen whether the hands-off policy will continue,” said a source on this side of the border.

While there are speculations on the possible role of India over the next 40 days or so to influence the final electoral outcome, reports in Bhutanese media indicate that some of the imperfections of the Indian electoral system have already reached the Himalayan land of happiness.

In the run-up to the primaries, there have been complaints that some parties tried to influence voters by giving monetary inducements. Referring to the disturbing trend, Kuensel, the national newspaper in Bhutan, wrote in an editorial urging the voters to be cautious.

“As we head to the elections, what we should ask ourselves and tell others is how have the parties convinced you. If you are agreeing to vote for a party because the candidate recharged a Nu 999 mobile Internet data or invited you to the convention paying Nu 1,000 daily allowance, ask yourself if the party violated election rules,” it wrote. There have also been allegations that one of the parties made claims about patronage from the royal family, a factor that can swing the outcome in a country where the majority swear by the royals. The complaint about claims on royal patronage is being investigated by the central election dispute resettlement body, said a source.

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