Bhutan’s Election Swings on India-China Relations

India’s tiny neighbor Bhutan goes for its third general election on Oct. 18, its voters having unexpectedly ousted the ruling People’s Democratic Party in the Sept. 15 primary, along with it the pro-India Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay. That has awakened concerns over how the new government will manage its relations with China and India, which in 2017 locked horns on a nearby road project.

Bhutan’s democracy is now only 10 years old, bequeathed by the outgoing absolute monarch Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who abdicated the throne in 2008. Nonetheless, he prepared his people extensively through education and a state-of-the-art voting infrastructure via electronic voting machines. Only college graduates can run for office, although only 3,000 exist in the country.

Two political parties, Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), which received the highest numbers of votes in the primary, are now contesting for their share in the National Assembly, the lower house, which totals 47 seats. The National Council, the upper house, has 20 seats of which 15 are elected and five nominated by the King.

The biggest issue for whichever party wins in October is managing the country’s fraught relations with its giant neighbors. In recent years China has been challenging India’s supremacy in the region on a host of different fronts. China in recent years has been making overtures to Bhutan, irritating India.

In July 2017, geopolitical tensions surfaced when China began building a road along the sensitive Doklam Plateau on the Bhutan-Tibet border, which China claims as its own, without informing the Bhutanese capital of Thimpu. Delhi rushed troops to the area to stall the road-building.

Beijing then accused India of “interference,” alleging that it was the Indian soldiers who crossed the boundary into China to halt the construction. The flare-up worsened when China bulldozed an old Indian Army bunker at the junction. The Indian army had refused to remove the structure after being asked to do so by China. The stand-off triggered one of the most sensitive periods in bilateral relations since a flare-up along the 4,057- km Line of Actual Control in 2013.

While Bhutan maintained a discreet silence, India and China finally climbed down, with their troops withdrawing to previous lines.

A relative newcomer, the DNT emerged victorious in the September polls with 31.8 percent of votes cast. The DPT (30.9 percent), formed the opposition from 2013 to 2018. Political observers raised concerns about the parties’ inexperience in dealing with the neighbors.

DNT president Lotay Tshering expressed his gratitude to the electorate of Bhutan for their victory in the primary round. A practicing physician turned politician, he emphasized affordable healthcare for every Bhutanese. The political inclination of DNT towards New Delhi or Beijing has yet to be revealed.

Since time immemorial, Bhutan has had historical and cultural relationships with India. Moreover the country is dependent on the largest democracy in various aspects like aid, infrastructure, imports and exports and other trade issues. The currency, the Nu, is equal in value to the rupee. Bhutan sells its abundant hydropower to India, which is the country’s largest foreign-exchange earner.

India has become increasingly concerned enough about what it considers China’s adventurism over what Delhi virtually considers a fief that Prime Minister Narenda Modi sought out

Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a recent meeting to bring up the subject of Bhutan.

Despite the closeness to India, political observers in Thimphu believe that the Bhutanese people gave a mandate for change in the primary round. The PDP’s democratically elected Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, a reliable pro-India politician, resigned along with his council of ministers on Aug. 9 to pave the way for an interim administration.

Tobgay acknowledged that anti-incumbency played a major role against his party. However he conceded defeat saying that “the will of the people must prevail in a democracy.” He congratulated the DNT & DPT and their candidates for the forthcoming general elections.

Tobgay’s party, while it succeeded in dominating on the electronic voting machines, foundered on support from the postal ballot users. This time 30 percent of the total electorate cast their votes through electronic machines, while the PDP failed to garner necessary support from the voters, who are primarily civil servants, security personnel, corporate employees and overseas Bhutanese along with their families.

The election authority permits a political party to change their candidates after the primary round. However both the parties on the fray recently declared their preferred candidates in all 47 constituencies. Now the party nominees are scheduled to join in live television debates till two days ahead of general elections.

The electoral promises of all political parties remain the same since 2008, revolving around the development of schools, hospitals, roads, electricity, drinking water, cell phone services, tourism and tax reform etc. Every political party continues to fight corruption, which is now omnipresent in all sectors of Bhutan. They all want to continue their mission making the beautiful country also a land of happiness.

Speaking to Asia Sentinel from Thimphu, Gopilal Acharya, a political commentator, said various Bhutanese social media users called attention to what they perceived as India’s inherent intervention in the polls.

Bhutan has more than 400,000 Facebook users and many of them mentioned a surprising incident that took place five years back. Prior to the last national elections, New Delhi suddenly withdrew support for kerosene and cooking gas supplies. The development resulted in rapid price rises of various commodities in the country.

Though New Delhi later changed its mind, by then the Thinley-led DPT lost its influence over the electorate. The voters recognized that Thinley would not be able to maintain a cordial relationship with New Delhi and that disrupting relations could be harmful. The PDP made a big issue out of it and finally won the 2013 poll battle convincingly, revealed Acharya adding that with PDP’s loss, New Delhi has to re-strategize its policy towards the Druk polls.

Nava Thakuria is a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel from eastern India.