Candidates contesting Local Government (LG) elections should also be entitled to state funding during the campaign like that of the Members of the Parliament (MPs). This was one of the recommendations that emerged during the 3rd national conference on women in politics, leadership and governance held last month.
Meanwhile, candidates to the LG don’t receive election campaign fund from the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB), according to Section 4 of the Public Election Fund. However, candidates contesting for the National Council and parliamentary elections are entitled to a campaign fund of Nu 150,000.
Some LG members, during the conference, said the absence of campaign fund is the main hurdle which deters them from participating in LG elections.
The say they have to do self funding during the campaign and the government has also fixed the ceiling to Nu 50,000 that each candidate can spend.
Calling LG members as the bed-rock of national governance, members said the government giving finance during the campaign will encourage more participation.
The Gup from Tashiding Gewog in Dagana, Namgay Pelden said the candidates have to manage campaign expenses from their own pocket and that it is very difficult, adding that she had to ask money from her relatives during campaign of the first election in 2011.
“As we are unemployed, it is very difficult for us,” she added.
Namgay Pelden said expenses are mostly incurred on printings, vouchers, brochures and travel since they need to travel from chiwog to chiwog and door to door.
Gup Namgay Pelden also participated in the second LG elections in 2016. However, she said she could manage her expenditure during the second elections as she had little savings having worked as a Gup.
“There are women too who are single and unemployed. So the government could finance a little during the campaign. We are not asking for an equal amount like that of the MPs. We would be happy even if the government could at least give Nu 50,000,” she added.
However, ECB maintains that the situation is different for candidates contesting for the Parliamentary elections and LG elections.
According to the ECB, LG constituencies are limited in size, in terms of geography as well as population, and the candidates contesting for the post of LG can commute within constituency comfortably during the election period incurring less expenditure in terms of reaching the electorate and presenting the manifesto whereas the situation is different for candidates contesting for the parliamentary elections.
The ECB also maintains that the parliamentary elections and LG elections are two different elections. In the first case, the MPs are elected to represent at the national level and a candidate has to cover a constituency which is much larger, whereas LG members, in the second case, are elected to represent at the local level and the constituency which a candidate has to cover is comparatively smaller.
“The issue on funding of LG members during campaign have been discussed time and again among the relevant stakeholders prior and during the enactment of the electoral laws in 2008,” ECB states.
And while the commission makes effort to encourage women participation in elections, it is also wary that a level playing field has to be ensured at the same time. ECB maintains that it has created conducive environment for women’s participation without distorting the level playing field.
Be it men or women, the Executive Director of Bhutan Network for Empowering Women (BNEW), Phuntshok Chhoden said there is a need for state funding for local election campaigns too.
She said the LG elections have even humbler level of participation from the grassroots in terms of social, economic and educational levels.
“Currently, with no sponsorship by the state, yet rising costs of even the most basic of campaign expenses, LG candidates find it hard since 99% of them hail from homes with limited or no cash flows,” she added.
Further, the electoral rules currently require LG members to open a separate bank account into which a sum not exceeding Nu 50,000 had to be deposited to fund their own campaign expenses. However, there was also widespread misunderstanding during the 2011 LG elections when many thought it mandatory to deposit Nu 50,000 and had to spend the entire amount too, which was an automatic deterrent to contest for women in particular.
Phuntshok Chhoden said firstly it is hard to find enough spare money to put away and secondly the idea of spending hard earned or often borrowed money on campaign with no guarantee of winning a seat seems unrealistic and ridiculous for many families.
“This is more so for women in particular, who depend on the willingness of their spouses to spare from the scarce resources the family would have,” she said, adding that BNEW will advocate and support the argument for state funding for campaign during LG elections.
The Lunana Gup, Kaka, said he incurred lots of expenditure during the campaign and he had to sometimes hire helicopter services to reach remote areas of his gewog.
“The charges of helicopter are Nu 58,000.There are villages where we have to walk for two days. We have to give porter and pony charges too,” he said.
Similarly, Dendup Dema, who contested the gup elections in 2016 from Trashigang, said they have to depend on their husband for financial support since many of them have no source of income.
“Even if we are interested to contest, sometimes it’s challenging for us to do so because of having to self fund during the elections,” she added.
The former Chief Election Commissioner, Dasho Kunzang Wangdi, has also proposed to the National Assembly to give positive consideration to provide support to the local government.
Dechen Dolkar from Thimphu