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47 candidates in the primary round, mandatory?

Political parties and the ECB talk on the current mandate that requires the parties to field 47 candidates in the primary round

Do political parties really need to have 47 candidates to contest for the primary round of elections?

This is one question some political observers have been asking given that the primary round is all about party elections. So the obvious question of why can’t voters just vote based on the party’s manifesto and its president.

However, in an email response to Business Bhutan, the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) maintained that the legal requirements for broad-based membership and cross-national support is clearly aimed to ensure that a political party is formed and registered to contest elections, represent the people and provide national leadership for the country as a whole.

ECB stated that accordingly, it is required to provide a list of candidates in all Demkhongs (constituencies), indicating ability and readiness to contest elections in all Demkhongs throughout the country rather than on a regional or limited and selective basis in parts of the country.

“Similarly, we also have other legal provisions to ensure that the elections are in no way contested along regional or such divisive lines,” the email stated.

Section 136 of the Election Act of the Kingdom of Bhutan, 2008 provides that the copy of the Charter of the party submitted with the application shall contain provisions that the party shall demonstrate that the party is broad-based with cross-national membership and support and is committed to national cohesion and stability.

Further, Section 198 of the Election Act of the Kingdom of Bhutan, 2008 provides that the ECB shall on issuing the notification calling upon a constituency to elect a member under section 188, 193, or 196, announce by notification the last date for making nominations for elections to be provided in the case of the Primary Round of election. The party intending to contest an election shall submit a Letter of Intent in the prescribed form to the ECB. The Letter of Intent shall include a tentative list of candidates that it may field in the General Election.

According to the ECB, political parties are required to submit a list of potential candidates in every Demkhong along with the Letter of Intent for the primary round to indicate its broad–based, presence and support throughout the country. Practically also the candidates would lead the primary round campaigns in the respective Demkhongs and provide opportunity and choice to the electorates.

The president of Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and the opposition leader, Dr. Pema Gyamtsho, is uncertain whether this is required absolutely or not.

“If it is strictly applied as criteria for eligibility of a party to contest in elections, then there should be no room for parties to change candidates for the general elections. If it is a nominal requirement as was made to understand in 2013, when candidates who didn’t even resign from their government posts were accepted, then that should also be made known to all parties,” he said.

He added that it would be necessary to field all candidates as voters of a constituency decide not just on the popularity of a party, but also on the acceptability and credibility of the candidate from their constituency.

Meanwhile, the opposition leader also said that there are already rumors that some parties with enough financial resources are planning to use money power to entice candidates from other parties to withdraw their candidature.

“I hope this is not true and that the ECB will have measures in place to prevent such possibilities. I also hope that the parties stop from engaging in fear mongering to dissuade potential candidates and supporters from coming forward to register with their party of choice,” he said.

He added, “There is also a serious need to prevent candidates from joining another party en masse after the primary round as this literally and essentially nullifies the whole purpose of having the primary round.”

However, Secretary General of Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP) Sonam Tobgay said the Election Act nowhere mentions in explicit about the requirement of all 47 constituency candidates in the primary round of elections.

“If ECB interprets as a requirement as it did in the last election, allowing migration of candidates to another party in the general round does not merit logical sense. Having mentioned, BKP is not only prepared with 47 but a well meaning 47 with adequate experience, competence and knowledge,” he added.

As for People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Secretary General Sonam Jatso said they believe that political parties must have 47 candidates confirmed for the primary round because it reflects the seriousness of the political parties. It also shows that political parties are prepared and ready to take part in the electoral process.

He added that people vote for political parties in the primary round technically, but candidates play an important role since they represent the party in the constituencies.

“Candidates contribute significantly during the campaign, fostering greater understanding of the party’s ideologies, plans and pledges among the people. In that sense, both the party and candidates are important so that voters can make informed choices based on what each party stands for and the leadership qualities and experiences of the candidates. That’s why we are of the view that as much as the party the candidates are also equally important,” Sonam Jatso said.

Similarly, Dr. Tandin Dorji from the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa said they have no objection on the rule of having 47 candidates fielded during the primary round and that political parties should abide by the rule if they were to contest in the election.

Chencho Dema from Thimphu