The health of Democracy largely begins with the conduct of Election Process. In the past there have been many frictions between the Election Commission of Bhutan and the Legislative Institutions as well as Political Parties of Bhutan in the conduct of Election process and interpretations of Election Laws by the Election Commission.
I am sharing 2 specific cases of election issues that came under the scrutiny
of the Election Commission of Bhutan during the recent Thromde Elections and its political fortune changing decisions.
One was in public domain regarding the disqualification of former Phuentsholing Thrompon. The Election Commission had invoked the Section (e) of Article 31 of the Local Government Act. It seems that the implied implication of the clause was stretched to the extreme limit to net the candidate.
And the other was less publicised outcome of the review of what appeared as the Thimphu's 2 constituency MPs blessings for Thimphu Local Election Candidates prior to actual Thromde Election Campaign. This had to do with the Section (b) of the same Article 31 of the Local Government Act. Here the Election Commission seems to have magnanimously granted the widest of leeway in Democracy Allowances to nullify the infringement appearance.
The most important thing in democratic election process is for the Election Commission of Bhutan to uphold ' Equal responsibility to the interpretation of Election Laws regardless of which Candidate or Political Party is involved. A partiality approach would rot the Bhutanese system of democracy that the Framers envisioned.'
Bhutan has many sharpened election legal tools that have double edges. Civil servants must remain apolitical ; Political Parties must refrain from influencing Local Government Elections ; Volunteers cannot assist in campaign works of Candidates and so on. I find these rules rather excessive because ultimately the individual voter is free to make his or her choice in the privacy of the polling booth. Neither God nor Boss can make him or her cast a vote against his or her own free will. On the other hand, the danger of having such restrictions is that an unscrupulous Election officer or an Election Commission with a political agenda of its own can flex or deflex those legal instruments to influence or change Election outcome. Has it happened yet ? Dissatisfactions have been expressed in the past. In my personal view the Election Commission did not seem to have exercised its authority with the same zeal in the cases of Thimphu and Phuentsholing possible infringement issues.
By the time, I wrote to Election Commission, the three Thromde Election was done and over with. I simply wanted to find out in retrospection, how Election Commission adopted two different strategies for what seemed two rather similar breach of different Sections of Article 31 of Local Government Act . The relevant Sections of Article 31 are:
Engages in any party politics or activities.
Holds any office of profit under the government or public company or corporation.
To me it is very clear that former Phuentsholing Thrompon did not hold any office of profit whether Government, Public Company or Corporation as described in Article 31(e). He had an individual private trade licence and yet the Election Commission had chosen to illuminate the term profit in the widest of imagination as in doing trade for profit to get the candidate out of the way. And on the other hand in the case of what I observed to be a likely infringement during Thimphu Thromde Election, the Election Commission in my opinion was more than magnanimous. I would have preferred that the Election Commission exercised equal magnanimity or censure.
Hereunder, I am reproducing my letter to the Election Commission on the subject of " Political Party Blessings in Thimphu Thromde Election. An infringement of Election Law? "
The Honourable Chief Commissioner Dasho Chogyal Dago and other Dasho Commissioners of the Election Commission of Bhutan.
Sub: Political Party Blessings in Thimphu Thromde Election. An infringement of Election Law?
Recently, after accepting a fb friend request, I came across a fb post of MP Kinga Tshering that was shared in November, 2015. I felt that this warrants a review by ECB.
I am forwarding the link of the fb post to the Election Commission of Bhutan for official review. Your attentions may have already been drawn to it unofficially. If such political association is legal, then a public notification from ECB sanctifying association with Political Parties for Local Election would be timely and helpful for other aspiring candidates.
The fb post speaks for itself and the implication is very clear. The Thrompon and his Council Members had sought the Blessings of the two important MPs of Druk Phuentsho Tsogpa. The political ramification and benefit is very real . Both Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba and Dasho Kinga Tshering are stalwarts of DPT. They are the only two MPs representing the two Constituencies of Thimphu and their joint constituencies make up the whole of Thimphu Thromde voter banks. The fb remarks of the two MPs leave no doubt of their genuine support for the out going Thrompon and his Tsogpa colleagues. The Thromde Local Government elected Team was profusely thanked and blessed to be re-elected by the two DPT MPs of Thimphu Constituencies. Therefore, there is no doubt that Thrompon Kinley Dorji and the seven Thromde Thuemis had sought and received the support and blessings of the two MPs and handsomely benefitted in their reelections.
The fb posted photo has the official status of the Thimphu Thromde Local Government with the two MPs of North and South Thimphu Dzongkhag Constituencies in the centre fold. It seems to have been taken during the last Thromde Council Meeting and celebration before the Members resigned and went for their respective re-election bids.
The Election Commission has disqualified the former Phuentsholing Thrompon who was favoured to win the reelection because of what appears to be an infringement of election law by the Candidate. Likewise the fb post clearly confirms the political association of Thimphu Thrompon and all the Thromde Tsogpas / Thuemis with the two MPs of Thimphu Dzongkhag. And Political association with any Political Party especially in matters of their re-election bids is likely to be an infringement of the laws of Local Government Election. Thimphu Thromde Candidates had associated with the DPT MPs of North and South Thimphu constituencies ,therefore, directly influencing the voter banks of the Political Party to vote for them in their re-elections.
Such similar association if permitted by ECB, will impact all Dzongkhag Thromde elections, hereafter. Thus for a Local Election to be free of Political Party influence, it should be necessary to discourage/ outlaw such public endorsement of Local Government Candidates by Political Parties or by their constituency MPs. Otherwise, where constituencies are overwhelmingly PDP, the Thromde Local Government will be that of PDP. And where DPT MPs are in majority as in Thimphu, the Local Government will be captured by DPT Candidates. This will naturally lead to Local Government Election being transformed into political contest between Political Parties.
I seek the wisdom of the honourable Dashos of the Election Commission of Bhutan in this matter. My interest is to have all laws equally enforced so that Justice is served regardless of the socio economic political status of a Bhutanese or in Election case that of Candidates.
Thanking your Honours and wishing all Dashos very successful terms in Office.
Sangey ( Wangcha )
Now that the readers have gone through my letter to the Election Commission, let me make several cautionary statements before I am condemned or lauded. I seek neither. Just reasoned, seasoned and substantiated thoughts or words if you please.
1. To a general reader, it might appear that I have personal issues with DPT particularly with Lyonpo Yeshi Zimba and Dasho Kinga Tshering and Thromde Dasho Thrompon and Tsogpa members. I have no issues with any of them. Some Tsogpas I have not even met.
2. Then some may feel that I was trying to damage the DPT Party. Again I have no reasons to think ill of DPT or any other Political Parties. Political Parties are veins of democracy.
3. And some might think it was an attempt to derail popular choices of the voters. Again No ! The procedure to stop or disqualify candidate/s is to submit a complaint during Election period to the Election Commission or its representatives. Once Election result is announced, the jurisdiction passes from Election Commission to the Judiciary including the 10 days Petition time. So any petition of election grievance must be filed to the respective Dzongkhag Court to have any impact and not to the Election Commission.
I have neither complained to the Election Commission during election period nor approached the Court of Justice during the Petition time. Actually I do not care who comes or goes in an Election. Not that I am unconcerned about the Country but because whoever comes or goes depends on mass choice in a democracy. And one must learn to respect that fact.
4. What I really care about is the foundamentality of democratic process. The absolute impartiality of the processes of Election. And Election Commission is solely responsible for fair and transparent Election. The Election Commission of Bhutan has been clearly Transparent. Its the Fairness part that is confusing and muddled. ( Look at the Gelephug Thromde case. The first Thrompon tenure was to expire on 15th March 2016 as per Local Government Act. And because the Election Commission arbitrarily conducted the second Thromde Election before time, the new Thrompon had to take office latest by 26th February,2016. What a Tamasha ? And this political Tamasha created by Election Commission was made more grotesque. The parent Ministry pulled a black foxy rule highlighting a confused state of governance in an attempt to vanquish the presiding Thrompon before his official term ended with the endorsement of Election Commission. It seems Acts and constitutional provisions are simply tools of the powerful and not the umbrella over democracy parameters as designed.
5, Election Commission is not accountable to any administrative or judicial authority for decisions taken during the Election period. So decisions to disqualify the former Thrompon of Phuentsholing as well as the decision to give the go ahead in case of Thimphu candidates to participate in the Election cannot be reversed. However, I have raised the issues in a substantive manner and perhaps succeed in getting the powerful Commission to ponder. And better still establish a Bench Mark under which future candidates can take refuge.
6.. By the time I wrote to the Election Commission, the internet link I referred to was there for over two months in public/ social media along with the Minutes of last Meeting of Thimphu Thromde Council. I felt that the Election Commission would surely have examined the implications. I wondered what stopped it from pursuing the Article 31 (b).
7. The Commission had invoked the Article 31(e) against former Phuentsholing Thrompon and disqualified him. However, the Commission had not deemed necessary to invoke Article 31( b) in the case of Thimphu Candidates. Did the numerical factors that of only an individual in Phuentsholing and a large group size Candidates plus a Political Party in Thimphu deter Election Commission in Thimphu and propel it in Phuentsholing? Or was it a true dawn of real Democracy Allowances that caused the Election Commission to rule out infringement of Article 31(b) and give the go ahead nod for Thimphu Candidates to participate in the Thromde Election. And disqualified the lone candidate in Phuentsholing who had no group or political strength to make meaningful protests.
8. The Election Commission though all powerful is expected to execute its functions without prejudice. So I wrote to the Election Commission. I did not expect any concrete action but hoped they will ponder over my scepticism. After 3 weeks, I politely asked what response or comment they had on this issue. I thought any response from Election Commission would provide a good political Bench Mark in the upcoming local Elections.
I am most grateful and deeply respect the Honourable Chief Election Commissioner for graciously taking the time and trouble to respond to my SMS communication of 25th February, 2016 reproduced hereunder.
Self: Honourable Dasho , any comment or response to my email of 4thFeburary,2016. Thank You with Respects Wangcha Sangey
Dasho: We issued notice and received explanations too. Documents, including observers report & same of media arbitrator, were reviewed for further caution or action or collection of evidence. Seems there is no cause to believe that integrity of election outcome was undermined. However we will ensure to prevent any such potential damage for the ensuing elections la. Thanks
Self: Thank you Dasho. This conclusion would help future candidates breathe easier. Stringency can be over constricting.
Dasho: Indeed la. Thanks
9. I thought the above SMS response from Election Commission Dasho though seemingly through was a standard description of a standing procedure adopted by Election Commission in the Dispute Settlement between warring Political Parties who make complaints to Election Officers during the period of Election. Thus the references to observers report, media people and arbitrators that have no real bearing on the photo of Thromde Candidates with Thimphu MPs with comments. It is said that a picture is worth thousand words. Everything was there in full colours and printed words. Also the Election Commission could not have followed such a procedure upon the receipt of my letter because by then, the ball was officially out of Election Commission jurisdiction. All disputes or complaints raised post election result announcement have to be dealt by the Court of Law if approached by a complainant. And I was not raising a dispute or complaint. I simply wanted to know how Election Commission have opposing perspectives for the two incidents that have similar infringement appearances. By official review I meant a process of introspection of its election conduct in the two cases.
10. The different decisions of the Election Commissions on the two cases appears to demonstrates the possible exercise of official powers in such extent of magnitude variation that can make or break a political fortune. Democratic values could be easily undermined.
The Photo that Dasho Kinga Tshering shared could very well be that of a demonstration of closely knitted social moment and not an evidence of political association as in Article 31 (b) of Local Government Act. The deed could be a simple social event and the fb sharing the proof of innocence. Or the deed an unofficial campaign launch and the fb sharing a political message to voters. Likewise maybe the former Thrompon possessing a trade licence could be deemed an innocent lapse and also irrelevant to Article 31(b). It did not fall under office of profit category. But in Phuentsholing case, the Election Commission chose to apply the logic of General Perception and in Thimphu case, the logic of General Perception was ignored. General Perception is kind of conclusion by the majority of an incident when the relevant law is not absolutely clear cut. Thus different yardstick was adopted in the same Election. That lacks equity in Fairness though Transparency was clear in the unevenness of the implementation. The reliability of Election Commission to be politically and officially fair and transparent in conduct is crucial in democratic elections. Fairness is absolutely more essential than just being transparent.
11. One immediate objective achieved from this exercise is now a kind of Bench Mark has been established. The future political Candidates have a Bench Mark of what can be done and what can be construed an election taboo. Now candidates can breathe a little easier in the matter of political association during Election and be less restricted in conducting a more impact oriented election campaign. What is past is past. What can be done, hereafter, free of grey areas are vital ingredients to good democracy.
Maybe the narrow and infuriatingly arbitrary attitude of the past where even an offer of doma pane was considered a breach of Election Rules are now laid buried to the past. If Election Commission could adapt to the character of the closely knitted society of our small population then there should no longer be that prevailing fear of Election Commission usage of a hammer on a trifle social flaw.
12. What will Election Commission's approach be to the many Local Elections to be held after June this year. After all, it would be just impossible in a closely knitted small population to avoid inter-relations between Local Candidates and members of Political Parties. Most candidates will be former members of Political Parties. They had resigned from their Party membership possibly just to meet the rediculous criteria set by legislators. It could be a physical separation not an emotional and heart separation. But National Election or Local Election, these are political instruments to enhance political liberty. Maybe the laws that segregate these elections should be scrapped rather than leaving it up to the dictates of Election Commission to decide the thin line.
13. I guess my writing to Election Commission and now sharing the same in social media will create hard feelings and possibly backlashes. Not many are concerned about the larger national picture. But it was a good opportunity to question the official conscience of the Election Commission. I had to find out the pulse of the New Election Commission and the General Public. The Nation's conscience must be pricked. Principles of Democracy demands not just Transparency but apparent Fairness and Equality. Transparently being Fair and Equal is most Beautiful and Desirable !
May all Laws apply equally to all people but may social and traditional culture find compassion and tolerance even in the coldness of the Legislations and Courts of Justice.