Elections for the National Assembly are nearly here, and we’ve been told all kinds of things by all kinds of people, some of whom have tried to convince us they care for us a lot, even though it is the first time they’ve seen us. In our Parliamentary system of government, the lower house is de jure more powerful than any other part. It forms the government, acts as the government’s first check, and most importantly, directly represents the people. For the purpose of representation, there isn’t much to say — unless they’ve done this before, we have to assume they can all do a good job of “being the bridge between the people and the government,” as they have undoubtedly repeated over and over again the past year.
I write this piece as a guide for this year’s elections to help choose a suitable party to form the government. This is the third time we’ve had elections in the country and my first time as an adult voter. I remember 2008 vividly. I was in middle school and the entire year, every debate competition held anywhere, the topic was always Democracy, and I always ended my speeches quoting the Gettysburg Address, that Democracy is the government of, for, and by the people. It was such a sweet sentiment. That was the year I started to really read about Democracy, especially the American form of it. That was the year they elected their first black President. That was the year the GOP’s candidate stopped a woman from racially disparaging Sen. Obama. Senator McCain disallowing a woman to derogatorily call Sen. Obama a “Muslim Arab” and saying to her, “ [Senator Obama] is a decent person, family man, citizen that I happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” I have carried that scene in my head ever since.
It was drummed into my head because of how strikingly different democracy in Bhutan was. All that was in Drukyul politics was tribalism and cult of personality, so much so that the first round of elections was decided almost entirely based on the leaders of the two parties. The issues did not matter. The manifestos they put out were almost identical, and yet we ended up with an extremely lopsided parliament. Over the next five years of the DPT government’s ruling, democracy, in some sense and to a large degree, flourished. Institutions of all kinds — NGOs, CSOs, governmental, and educational — conducted all kinds of workshops on democracy, and I was in most of them. I lived in such a tight bubble that I honestly expected the second round of elections to be more civil. But 2013 was even more farcical, more divisive than 2008. By now, the internet was a big thing in the country, and how did we use that? By spreading fake news before the Russians ever thought of it. We all remember the malicious site, Bhutanomics.com, which would block people who challenged their false claims and spread true-sounding-but-fundamentally-fake stories about politicians. That year too, I did not see politics that, in sentiment, equaled Sen. McCain’s defense of his political opponent. Politicians who would say to their supporters, “look the other candidate is decent too, I just have a different view of the issues and that’s why you should pick me.”
If there was talk about the issues, then forgive me for being cynical, but I call BS on all those promises. The “issues” I remember the PDP government running on was fiscal responsibility (remember they called the DPT the “debt party”) and China. And what happened a year after they formed the government? A huge pay hike. And where is the national debt now? Worse off than when they took office. And who stood up to China when they came bullying last year? Forgive me if I don’t buy the narrative about “strategic silence” on the Doklam issue. But I digress.
Now we’re in 2018 and I am an adult. Since 2013, I have learned a lot about American democracy and have become disillusioned. I have lost a little respect for Sen. McCain based on his hypocritical vote against ACA last year. I have learned that even in the US, the talk of issues is only superficial. Whereas in Bhutan we have a cult of personality around party leaders, there they have identity politics. But so what? We should still strive towards a democracy of issues. So what if the example I looked up to turned out to be a Potemkin village? We can model ourselves around the possibility of a perfect democracy, reality be damned, we’re still growing, still finding our feet. And for that reason, I have here compiled the five main issues our country will face in the next five years. Based on which party gives the best answers to them, I will choose my government, and I invite all my readers to do the same. Forget voting for your friend or family member. Don’t even take a “moral” stand on it. If they are an awful candidate, still tell them you voted for them. A lie that saves both our kin’s feelings and builds the nation we want is a rare example of a mandatory lie. Consider it the compromise between “Good Citizen” and “Good Friend”: a fundamental duty as a citizen and a friend.
- The Economy — In the next five years, when the Puna Tsangchu is commissioned, the Bhutanese economy will see huge growth. If proper policies aren’t in place by then, we risk a recession. At the same time, the next government will have to do something about the national debt. The economic truth is that it doesn’t matter how MUCH the debt is, it only matters how you pay it back. The Jubilee Debt Campaign in their 2015 report, The New Debt Trap, rated Bhutan as ‘high risk’ (of defaulting). We’ll need to vote in a party that promises to do something about this.
- Child Poverty — Figures of child poverty around the country differ, but if you, as I did, make a choropleth map, you’ll find it is minimal in Thimphu and rises the farther it goes from there. So, rural development, especially in terms of child services is woeful in Bhutan. We’ll need to vote in a party that promises to do something about violence against children, children’s education, and most importantly, something about children going hungry.
- Infrastructure — This is the staple promise of every candidate in Bhutanese politics. It is as cliched as a South Thimphu candidate promising to move the Babesa sewage plant. Yet it is valid. No single investment, not even a direct cash drop, does more for economic development than investment in infrastructure. In my mind, Bhutan in a few decades will have economic centers like Thimphu, Monggar, Gelephu, and Phuentsholing. And around these cities are small towns where people live. Even if that is not where we end up going, a strong road network is essential.
- Education — The issue of central schools is a controversial one. Depending on who you ask, it is either a super success or a downright national embarrassment. So, whatever government comes in has to first study central schools and then work a national education plan around it. But that’s not the full extent of what we should expect from our next government. The number one education issue on my mind is that of structural unemployment — how is it that we have complained about structural unemployment every day since even before democracy began, and still not have done anything to the education system to fix it?
- Agriculture — Bhutan’s population is still primarily agricultural. A good government that invests directly in Agriculture will benefit more people than investing in any other sector (save infrastructure). We need a government that promises to help our farmers improve their yield and find better markets. A government that actively protects our farmers through subsidies and incentives. This is not a temporary measure till a point when agriculture becomes less important. It is a permanent investment. Every industry in human history has come and gone, but agriculture always remains.
I understand there are many other important issues too, but these five are the most pressing, most relevant and most needful of help. The last two governments both did well for small business and the next one only has to build on current standards. National security is no worry. Bhutan remains one of the only carbon negative ecosystems in the world, so the environment is safe and well-taken care of. Our culture has taken good shape, and it might actually be more secure now than at any time in the last half a century of development. Most things are fine with the country. The few issues we do have, need immediate attention. I know I will be voting based on what these parties tell me about these issues, everything else is secondary to me for now. And it should be for you too. The sanctity of elections is that you exercise total control over what happens in that election booth, and the sanctity of the voter is that you always choose to vote in favor of the collective good, not personal. And as I said above, don’t feel the pressure to be “moral” about telling people who you voted for. It is fine to lie. If someone pays you and tells you to vote for them, take the money and say you did, but in that booth, vote for the right government. Same the case with your friends and family.