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EFSAS Commentary

Bhutan’s recently held elections demonstrate that democracy, ushered into the country only in 2008, has taken firmer root


The Election Commission of Bhutan announced on 10 January that the liberal People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had won 30 seats in the 47-member parliament, or National Assembly, at the elections held the previous day. The rest of the seats were won by the Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP). Voter turnout was 65.6%, and voters chose members of parliament from a pool of 94 candidates presented by the PDP and the BTP. A weakening economy and massive unemployment have triggered a wave of migration out of Bhutan, particularly to Australia, and these issues dominated the campaign. During campaigning, Tobgay vowed to promote the investment needed to boost the country’s $3 billion economy and address the unemployment that is driving the brain drain. Bhutan has a population of only around 800,000, but its strategic location, sandwiched between the world’s two most populous countries, India and China, meant that both these neighbours watched the vote with interest. A Buddhist majority country roughly the size of Switzerland, Bhutan has deep economic and trade relations with its southern neighbour, India, which is also its biggest donor. It has no formal diplomatic relations China, but is in talks with Beijing to resolve border disputes.

The 47 members of the National Assembly were elected from single-member constituencies. Primary elections were held in which voters cast votes for candidates of the registered parties. The votes for all candidates of the same party were then aggregated across the whole of the country. The two parties receiving the most votes advanced to the second round, and were able to field the same or different candidates. Second round elections were held using first-past-the-post voting. A primary contest in November had narrowed the race down to two parties, with both the previous government’s lawmakers and their former opposition knocked out.

In a region where concerns about vote-rigging, an unlevel playing field, and toxic bashing of electoral opponents plague elections, the vote in Bhutan saw no political violence. Equally refreshing was the message of solidarity from both parties, “burying the differences and working together to fulfill the vision of the king and the country”. Candidates used social media to reach out to potential voters but there were only a few cases of “fake news” or misinformation on social media.

PDP leader Tshering Tobgay, 58, who was earlier Prime Minister from 2013 to 2018, became the new premier for a second five-year term. The PDP was formed in 2007 by Tobgay. Born in Bhutan in 1965, Tobgay attended the University of Pittsburgh, where he received his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. This was followed by the completion of his Masters of Public Administration at Harvard University. After returning to Bhutan, Tobgay served as a program officer for two years within the Department of Education before being promoted to the position of officer-in-charge. Afterwards, he went on to become the director of the Department of Human Resources in the Ministry of Labour and Employment.

In 2007, Tobgay became a candidate for the People’s Democratic Party in Thimphu. In doing so, he became one of the first civil servants to resign from the government to join politics. Bhutan held elections for the first time in 2008, after political reforms established a bicameral parliament soon after the start of the reign of the present King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, who remains hugely popular. Campaigns in Bhutan have always been subdued affairs, with strict rules mandating that election materials can only be posted on public notice boards. In 2008, Tobgay became the Leader of the Opposition Party in the National Assembly and also the President of the People’s Democratic Party. Finally, after his party won Bhutan’s parliamentary elections in the summer of 2013, he was elected as the Prime Minister.

The United States (US) welcomed the elections, with a spokesman saying “The United States congratulates the people of Bhutan on a successful national election on January 9 and the People’s Democratic Party and its leader Tshering Tobgay on the party’s win. We look forward to working with Bhutan’s incoming government to build upon the friendly relations between our countries and deepen our people-to-people ties”. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a post on X, “Heartiest congratulations to my friend @tsheringtobgay and the People’s Democratic Party for winning the parliamentary elections in Bhutan. Look forward to working together again to further strengthen our unique ties of friendship and cooperation”.

Describing the elections, Al Jazeera wrote, “Some voters are expected to trek for days to cast their ballots in the landlocked and sparsely populated country. Foremost in the minds of many are the struggles facing the kingdom’s younger generation, with chronic unemployment and a brain drain of migration abroad”. Bhutan’s youth unemployment rate stands at 29%, according to the World Bank, while economic growth has sputtered along at an average of 1.7 percent over the past five years. Young citizens have left in record numbers searching for better financial and educational opportunities. AFP news agency quoted farmer Kinley Wangchuk, 46, as saying, “We don’t need more new roads or bridges. What we really need is more jobs for young people”.

Since the first elections were held 15 years ago, Bhutan’s democratic system has evolved significantly. Whereas only 2 parties were eligible to compete in the inaugural elections, the recent race saw five competing parties. Moreover, compared to past elections, candidates this time had specific promises and positions. Both parties pledged a huge ramp-up of investment in hydropower, Bhutan’s primary source of energy. According to the World Bank, Bhutan’s mountain valleys and abundant water resources have created “ideal conditions” for hydropower development and export to India. The BTP manifesto said installed hydro-capacity was just 10% of potential, and the PDP pledged the development of steel, cement and other support industries that would provide much-needed jobs. The PDP promised to double Bhutan’s GDP to $5 billion, create 10,000 jobs annually, increase the manufacturing sector’s contribution to GDP from 6 to 30 percent, and increase foreign direct investment (FDI) from $500 million to $6 billion during its term in office. These are very ambitious targets.

PM Tobgay has, in the past, been forthright about the disparity between Bhutan’s “Shangri-la” image and its more bleak reality. He said in 2016 that “My country is not one big monastery populated with happy monks. We are a small, underdeveloped country doing our best to survive”. Tobgay, in the run-up to the elections, sounded the alarm over Bhutan’s “unprecedented economic challenges and mass exodus”. His party’s manifesto quoted government statistics showing that one in every eight people were “struggling to meet their basic needs for food” and other necessities. Career civil servant Pema Chewang of the BTP said the country was losing the “cream of the nation”, and added, “If this trend continues, we might be confronted with a situation of empty villages and a deserted nation”. Tourism, a small share of Bhutan's economy but a key earner of foreign currency, has yet to recover from the disruptions of the Covid pandemic.

On the foreign policy front, Bhutan is nonaligned, having no formal relations with any of the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members. Its diplomacy with major countries is conducted with neighbor India as an intermediary. India remains Bhutan’s biggest donor and ally, and will be crucial in helping with its economic recovery. India is funding multiple infrastructure initiatives in the country, including a newly announced railway project. Bhutan also has huge untapped hydroelectric potential, with New Delhi likely to be a lucrative client.

In a speech in December on the occasion of Bhutan's National Day, King Jigme Wangchuck announced plans to establish a special administrative region in the country’s south, bordering the northeastern Indian state of Assam. The massive 1,000-square-kilometer Gelephu project seeks to create an international economic city. The announcement came shortly after a visit by the King to India, where he told Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the purpose of the project is to build an economic corridor linking South Asia and Southeast Asia through India’s northeastern states. The king sought cooperation on infrastructure development, including an international airport, and investment by Indian companies.

Bhutan does not presently maintain formal diplomatic relations with China, but the previous Prime Minister, Lotay Tshering, signed a joint cooperation agreement with Beijing in October 2023, which specified the duties of a joint technical team in delineating the border between the two. Tshering was generally seen as having a tilt towards China, to the extent that he was willing to negotiate with the country. In recent years, Bhutan has also been an arena of hostilities between India and China. Doklam, a border region claimed by both China and Bhutan, saw clashes between Indian and Chinese troops break out in 2017. Beijing has since established a permanent military presence there and pressured Bhutan to accept a territorial swap proposal that would cede Doklam to China. Earlier this month, satellite photos purportedly depicting a Chinese military presence on Bhutan-claimed land were released by India’s NDTV.

If Bhutan had been expected to compromise with China under the previous administration, the change in government makes that unlikely for now. Newly-elected Tobgay is widely seen to be pro-India, and this hands a major boost to India’s strategic interests in the region. Pankaj Jha, professor of international affairs at India’s O.P. Jindal Global University, believes that given its serious concerns about the border issue with China, India should make stronger relations with Bhutan a diplomatic priority.

The elections have demonstrated that democracy has taken deeper roots in Bhutan, but the new government will have its work cut out to address the many challenges at home, as well as deal with the delicate geopolitical balance in the region.