Introduction

Bhutan, a small country nestled in between two great powers, has faced over a decade of rapid political, economic, and social changes. This nation is well known for the use of an indicator known as the Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index, which was created as a more comprehensive alternative to traditional economic forms of measurement [1]. This index serves as the official measurement for progress in the country, and the output of work utilizing this index originate in the Center for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research, which publishes the World Happiness Report [2]. This country has rapidly developed and industrialized, transforming from a small agricultural and subsistence-based economy to a low-middle income country that has tapped into its own geographic attributes in order to rapidly grow its economy and to begin opening up to world markets [3].

The numbers of its economic advancement are impressive, and highlight the fact that the country is dramatically becoming both richer and more equal. The percentage of the total population in absolute poverty fell from 25 to 2 between the years 2003 to 2015, and its Gini Index, where a value of 0 represents perfect equality, fell from 69 to 39 over the same years [4]. This economic advancement is a result of the success of Bhutan’s economic management,  which is centered around a series of Five Year Plans, the most recent of which was released in 2018. These plans are based around the GNH Policy Screening Tool, put in place a decade ago, which acts as a principled policy making guideline, ensuring that all government policies will work towards the betterment of the people [5].

Political Change

The political of Bhutan have seen a similarly rapid and dynamic change. Formerly ruled solely by the monarchy, Bhutan transitioned to a constitutional monarchy, a change that was initiated not through any means of revolution by the people, but by the fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck himself [6]. This new era of governance is based on four key pillars, all of which work towards National Happiness, and which must be considered in the drafting of all legislation [7]. These pillars are (1) good governance, (2) sustainable socio economic development, (3) preservation and promotion of culture, and (4) environmental conservation [8]. These pillars clashed for the first time in the 2018 elections, as changes brought by increasing democratization and development produced a popular movement that advocated the protection of traditions and culture in the face of a rapidly changing economy and society.

Despite a very recent transition to democracy, Bhutan has now seen three successful elections, each with an unchallenged change of leadership, and the quality and functioning of the government itself is ranked amongst other much more mature democracies. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index for 2017, Bhutan ranks 27th, with a score of 67 out of 100, this score displays a commendable and well functioning system, but into context by noting that France’s score is 70, while Spain was given a 57 [9].

Unequal Advancements

In contrast to the image of being an infallible economic and political success, the areas in which political and developmental growth falls short have been illuminated by the most recent elections in Bhutan. It must be acknowledged that future development issues loom large on the horizon; although there have been large economic growth in recent years, this “growth remains narrowly based; vulnerable to sectoral shocks and cyclical swings’ and unable to create adequate jobs, especially for the growing youth population.” This clearly outlines the pressing need for Bhutan’s economic and developmental strategies to shift in order to both diversify the economy, and to address large gaps in equality [10]. Such assessments are put forth by international organizations such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which identifies “limited and unequal access to quality education” as one of the main obstacles to increasing its place on the economic and developmental ranking system [11].

Most notably, regardless of the importance placed upon environmental conservation in the constitution, through the fourth key pillar, Bhutan faces the inevitable challenge to develop rapidly in a sustainable and ecological manner. Representative of the cost of industrialization, the city Pasakha, which serves as one of the major hubs of industry in Bhutan, was ranked by the World Health Organization in 2018 as the second most polluted city in the world [12]. Although other policies, for example its strict policies on maintaining forestation, have ensured a negative carbon footprint on the national level – this city serves as an anecdote to the costs of development [13].

The Elections

Bhutan’s electoral system, while democratic, places constraints and regulations that do not otherwise exist in many modern democratic states. Elections are conducted in a way that seeks to deter the overly passionate and divisive characteristics of modern democratic elections and intensive election campaigns. As a result, laws restricting opinion polling have been imposed and have resulted in the absence of the electoral analysis typical of other democracies [14]. In addition, all members of the clergy remain outside of politics and are restricted from voting; political campaigning is limited to working hours, and laws against defamation are strict [15]. It is in this context that the most recent elections went through the course of their debates, which were mild by many standards, but struck upon key issues which are contentious to both Bhutan’s future economic and political development.

The elections began on the 15th of September, 2018 and finished a month later, and marked the successful completion of the third democratic elections in the country’s history [16]. These elections saw the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) win 30 out of 47 seats in the national assembly and the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) win the remaining seats. The previous ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), did not make it past the first round of voting, which eliminates all but two parties, who proceed to the second round to determine the seats either party has in the national parliament [17]. The former ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), was therefore unable to collect enough votes to become one of the two parties sitting in the national parliament [18].

To fully understand the content of these elections, it is important to note the larger geopolitical forces that may indirectly affect both the voters and the politicians who campaign for their votes. China and India are currently engaged in a struggle for external power in this small state, and have attempted to influence elections in a number of different ways [19]. Bhutan may be described as a “buffer” between these two great powers, and India has formerly held influence over the foreign policy decisions of Bhutan. However, despite India’s strong support for the former Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, the central role of development issues in the election campaign, and the strong culture of anti incumbency saw his upset in October [20].

Key issues

A deviation from past debates, in 2018 the winning party shifted the focus of their campaign from the contentious external issues to focus on internal development needs. The campaign of the DNT “comprised development issues, particularly health access and facilities,” which served the party well in rural areas, where the effects of the failings of existing healthcare are more strongly felt [21]. More generally, the DNT party campaigned with the slogan, “Narrowing The Gap,” promising to make the country more equal and to close large gaps in wealth, a tactic that was appealing to voters in rural areas and to women [22]. In contrast to this, the opposing DPT ran with the slogan “Progress with equity and justice”, a concept more abstract and less connected to the immediate development issues that Bhutan is facing and the [23].

The now ruling party, the DNT, is led by a former surgeon by the name of Lotay Tshering, who as mentioned, has centered his entire campaign around access to healthcare, inter alia other development concerns. These subjects lie at the heart of what the elderly and rural voters want, however, he also reaches out to the youth; a focus on macroeconomics and the diversification of the economy in order to facilitate future opportunities attracted voters from this segment of the population [24].

Conclusion

There has been no creation of one perfect model, or guideline, by which states should develop their economy and maintain their political system. Bhutan, a state in which The most recent elections, which took place this past October, highlight clearly the way in which development remains, and will remain, a central issue to many states, and must be considered by those in power. While the influence of populism and misleading campaigns have made elections across North America and Europe difficult to decipher, the regulations requiring a comparatively civil election process in Bhutan leaves the core issues which drive voters clear for all to see.

The need for basic needs of health and development to be met, and the continued desire for growth and opportunity has allowed the DNT, a party that did not make it past the first round of voting on its first attempt, to become the new leaders of the country. The DNT and the Prime Minister Lotay Tshering will spend the next four years implementing a program that seeks to promote further sustainable development, while addressing the strains of rapid economic growth and the dangers of inequality.

Sara MAGEE
(14/02/2019)

References

[1] Schultz, K. (2017, January 17). Bhutan’s Happiness Faces the Growing Pains of Development. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/17/world/asia/bhutan-gross-national-happiness-indicator-.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Asian Development Bank. (2013). Bhutan Critical Development Constraints. Mandaluyong City: Philippines.  https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/30350/bhutan-critical-development-constraints.pdf (p ix).

[4] Ishihara, Y. (2016, September 24). East Asia Forum. Evaluating Bhutan’s Development. Retrieved from: http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2016/09/24/evaluating-bhutans-development/.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Slater, J. (2018, October 18). The Washington Post. In tiny Bhutan, known for its pursuit of happiness, democracy brings discontent. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/in-tiny-bhutan-known-for-its-pursuit-of-happiness-democracy-brings-discontent/2018/10/17/05e43118-d229-11e8-a275-81c671a50422_story.html?utm_term=.f36a9ea248d5.

[7] Schultz, K. (2017, January 17). Bhutan’s Happiness Faces the Growing Pains of Development. The New York Times.

[8] Parikh, T. (2018, May 16). The Diplomat. Bhutan’s Happiness Faces the Growing Pains of Development. Retrieved from: https://thediplomat.com/2018/05/bhutans-happiness-faces-the-growing-pains-of-development/.

[9] Transparency International. (2017). Corruption Perceptions Index 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.transparency.org/news/feature/corruption_perceptions_index_2017#table.

[10] Asian Development Bank. (2013). Bhutan Critical Development Constraints. Mandaluyong City: Philippines.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Parikh, T. (2018, May 16). The Diplomat. Bhutan’s Happiness Faces the Growing Pains of Development.

[13] Ibid.

[14] (2018, September 15). The Straits Times. Bhutan seeks more happiness in third elections. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/bhutan-seeks-more-happiness-in-third-election-ever.

[15] Slater, J. (2018, October 18). The Washington Post. In tiny Bhutan, known for its pursuit of happiness, democracy brings discontent.

[16] (2018, September 15). The Straits Times. Bhutan seeks more happiness in third elections.

[17] (2018, October 18). Aljazeera. Bhutan voters chooses centre-left DNT in general election. Retrieved from: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/10/bhutan-voters-chooses-centre-left-dnt-general-election-181018184758313.html.

[18] Ganapathy, N. (2018, September 21). The Straits Times. Bhutan elections watched closely by India, China. Retrieved from:  https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/bhutan-elections-watched-closely-by-india-china.

[19] (2018, September 15). The Straits Times. Bhutan seeks more happiness in third elections.

[20] Parikh, T. (2018, May 16). The Diplomat. Bhutan’s Happiness Faces the Growing Pains of Development.

[21] Ganapathy, N. (2018, September 21). The Straits Times. Bhutan elections watched closely by India, China.

[22] Dema, K. (2018, October 26). International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Retrieved from: https://www.idea.int/news-media/news/bhutan-votes-change-inclusive-growth-prime-minister-elect-lotay-tshering.

[23] Slater, J. (2018, October 18). The Washington Post. In tiny Bhutan, known for its pursuit of happiness, democracy brings discontent.

[24] Ishihara, Y. (2016, September 24). East Asia Forum. Evaluating Bhutan’s Development.

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