Monday, April 07, 2008

Democracy From Above

A royalty-guided democracy takes shape in Bhutan.

Bhutan joined the list of democratic nations with elections to choose candidates for its lower house of parliament, the national assembly, on March 24. Among the royalist parties that contested, the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) party was the main victor in these polls, winning 45 out of the 47 seats. Jigme Thinley, the leader of the DPT is designated to become the prime minister of the country. The elections were held following a royal decree that persuaded citizens to vote.

Bhutan's transition to democracy has thus been guided by the benign hand of the hitherto absolute monarch. The current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck had come to power after his father Jigme Singye Wangchuk abdicated and promised a shift to a constitutional monarchy in the predominantly mountainous state. The royal family in Bhutan controls most of the wealth and owns two of the largest business conglomerates. The current king had however made all efforts to ensure that many of the eligible Bhutanese get to vote in the elections to the national assembly. But a significant number of Bhutanese were disenfranchised owing to the fact they did not “fit” within the cultural parameters set by the monarch to be eligible for Bhutanese citizenship. These sections, primarily Nepali speaking, are concentrated in southern Bhutan and have refused to accept the verdict of the elections of which they were not a part. Many Nepali speaking Bhutanese had been exiled to Nepal earlier as refugees, complicating the problem.

Bhutan figures among the poorest in the world in terms of the usual economic and human development indices. Over the past few years, the monarchy has promoted state-led investment in education and health to alleviate the situation and there has been some betterment in living indicators such as literacy and life expectancy. Bhutan is still dependent upon India in matters of economy, with high levels of financial aid from New Delhi. The monarchy had instituted the concept of “gross national happiness” to measure Bhutan's progress, bringing in abstract notions of spiritual development and keeping in focus traditional Buddhist norms of living combined with respect for the environment. It is understood that the ushering in of democratic governance and the installation of democratic institutions guided by the monarchy were intended to placate the growing resentment among the Bhutanese.

The transfer of executive power to an elected authority should bring about improvements in living, provided the ruling party and its officials continue to instil democratic consciousness and function better than just being an appendage of the palace. However, both the main parties are only committed to continue the status quo – praise the concept of gross national happiness and to pay obeisance to the royal family. Yet a new beginning has been made to create an accountable executive and legislative authority and it is hoped that a democratic consciousness will gradually seep into the Bhutanese state.

It is here that Nepal, yet another mountainous monarch-ruled nation, offers both an interesting contrast and a parallel. Forced to become a constitutional monarchy instead of an absolute one, owing to peoples' agency in 1990, Nepal is now poised to become a constitutional republic after the rejection of the concept of the supremacy of the monarch by almost the entire political spectrum. The Nepali Maoists to whom much of the credit for such a remarkable culmination must be due, are taking part in an election to a constituent assembly which will decide a new republican constitution. The usurping of total power by the king in 2002 hastened the fall of monarchy and the transition to a republic will hasten the downfall of feudalism that ascribed divine power and suzerainty to the monarchical order.

In contrast, the transition to a constitutional monarchy in Bhutan has been a process initiated from above and has seen little agency from the masses. Nevertheless, a new consciousness of democratic norms and values and the benefits of a representative form of governance should help usher in the transfer of sovereignty to the Bhutanese people. Although the transition is in the nature of democracy from above, from now on, any further amelioration of the iniquitous conditions of living, it is hoped, would be the result of peoples' agency.
( An EPW editorial )

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