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Monarchy To Democracy In Bhutan

Written by: Kanishk Thakur - IInd year Student in National Law Institute University, Bhopal
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  • After 100 years of rule by absolute monarchy, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is set to emerge as a parliamentary democracy with the constitutional monarch at the top. Bhutan, a pocket-sized Buddhist kingdom bordering Nepal was so isolated that when the first car arrived in the early 1960s, local reports said villagers tried to give it water to drink when they saw it parked on the side of the road. However in the last 40 years, under the rule of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck (fourth king of Wangchuck dynasty), Bhutan has developed apace, building roads, schools and hospitals and raising life expectancy from 40 to 66 years. Now democracy is to be added to that list of achievements, to the concern of many of Bhutan's people. After a century of absolute monarchy, the winds of change are sweeping across Bhutan. The Buddhist kingdom has now begun groundwork to usher in the parliamentary democracy.

    An interesting thing which can be noticed in bring democracy in Bhutan is the rule of the king. The king himself tried to persuade his people to move clock hands on a little by letting them decide whether he should continue his reign. The new written constitution which was drafted by drafting committee of 39 members has the chief justice of supreme court of Bhutan as the head which says Bhutan as a modern two party democratic state with king as a head but the day to day would be moved to as elected prime minister.

    There is a very close relation between monarchy and the people of Bhutan as it goes till the past. The monk ruler, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1594-1651), a Tibetan native, is considered as the founder of modern Bhutan state. He was the first ruler of Bhutan. He ruled for 35 years and then his successors ruled the country till 1907.

    Then there was the birth of Wangchuk dynasty and hereditary Monarchy of Wangchuk dynasty was established in 1907 with Ugyen Wangchuk as dynasty's first hereditary monarch of Bhutan on December 17, 1907. The kings of Bhutan are known as Druk Gyalpo which means the dragon king. The present king, king Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk is the fifth hereditary king. The establishment of a hereditary monarchy wads indeed the most important landmark in the recorded history of Bhutan. If we start from the first king, King Ugyen Wangchuk to the present king, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk we can notice one thing that every king of Wangchuk dynasty has thought about the country, Bhutan.

    King Ugyen Wangchuk (1907-1926 AD) took out several reforms and introduced the system of western education. He opened many schools. He signed a new Anglo-Bhutanese Treaty with British India Raj in 1910. After his death his eldest son King Jigme Wangchuk (1926-1952 AD) became the ruler. Under his rule Bhutan signed a treaty called as the Treaty of perpetual peace and friendship between the government of Independent India and Bhutan which was signed in Darjeeling, on 08 August 1949. This Treaty governs the modern day Indo-Bhutan relations. Bhutan agreed to be guided by the advice of India in regard to its foreign relations, according to this Treaty.

    After his death his son King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk (1952-1972) ascended the throne as the third king in 1952.

    Bhutan achieved all-round development during his reign. He introduced land reforms putting a landholding ceiling of 30 acres. He distributed lands to land-less citizens. He put a ban on slavery and serfdom. He established a High court and reorganized the judicial system, Tshogdu or National assembly (1953) - Bhutan's first unicameral Parliament, the Royal Advisory Council (1963) and set up a planning commission (1971). During his reign Bhutan's first planned economic development plan was drafted. In 1961, a five year economic development pan was launched for the years 1961-1966. Bhutan is still following this five-year economic development plan.

    He created Bhutan's first Council of Ministers in 1968. In 1963, Bhutan joined the Colombo Plan. During his 20 years reign, 1770 Km of roads were constructed, the number of schools rose to 102 and 6 hospitals were established. King Jigme Singye Wangchuk was the fourth hereditary king of Bhutan who was made the king at the age of 17 in 1972 due the sudden death of his father. King Jime Singye Wangchuck also carried forward the socio-economic progress of the country initiated by his father. Bhutan has made tremendous progress in the field of communications, hydro-electric power development, education, health, financial sector, environmental protection, and industrial and infrastructural development during his reign. King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk (born February 21, 1980) is the fifth dragon king of the Wangchuk dynasty.

    He is the world's youngest head of the state. On December, 2005 King Jigme Singye Wangchuk announced his intention to abdicate in his son's favor in 2008, and that he would begin handing over responsibility to him immediately. On December 14, 2006, he announced his immediate abdication and transfer of the throne to Jigme Khesar Wangchuk. The youngest king began his unusual reign as a king overseeing the democratization of his country. He also travelled extensively around the country encouraging participation in the upcoming democratic exercises and speaking mainly to the youths of Bhutan on the need for Bhutanese to strive for greater standards whether in education, business, civil services and the need for people of small country to work harder than others. Many government initiatives were taken by the new king with a view to strengthen the system in preparation for the democratic changes in 2008.
    Till there was no democracy in Bhutan, the king governed the country with the support of a National Assembly and a Council of Ministers. There was no written constitution to protect the fundamental political and human rights.

    The cabinet or the council of ministers (Lhengye Zhungtsho) – The first council of ministers which was created in 1968 had six full fledged Ministeries each headed by a cabinet minister. On June 30, 2003 the king reshuffled the ministers and four new ministeries to the existing six. They are the ministry of home, ministry of trade and industry, ministry of agriculture, ministry of communications, ministry of foreign affairs, ministry of health, ministry of finance, ministry of work and human settlements, ministry of labor and human resources and the ministry of education. The king retained the power of nominating the names of the council of ministers to the assembly. The post of the head of cabinet equivalent to prime minister is rotational. It is rotated among the six cabinet ministers on an annual basis.

    The National Assembly – The National Assembly of Bhutan was a unicameral house of parliament which is called Tshogdu. It had 150 members from which 100 members were elected indirectly by the heads of household for a three year term. As of now the elections to National Assembly has never been conducted. The constituency of the National Assembly consists of a number of villages.Each village is entitled to nominate one candidate. Since there is no electoral system, villages must nominate the candidate by consensus.

    The provision of self nomination is non – existent. The law did not permit for campaign or canvassing by the candidates. Individual did not have the right to vote. Every family in a village is entitled to one vote in elections. The National Assembly had no independent authority. It did not have sovereign power as it was vested in the monarch. Citizens did not have right to change the government. The National Assembly did not have an opposition bench. The government (executive branch) normally tabled a bill for discussion. The government sponsored bills became acts or laws. The members of the National Assembly did not table the bills.

    The Royal Advisory Council – The Royal Advisory Council (RAC) was established in 1965 with the task of advising the king on the matters of governance and to serve as a bridge between the king and the people. The RAC consisted of 9 members. Six out of nine members were elected by the National Assembly for three years term. The chairman of the RAC was appointed by the king.

    The judiciary – Bhutan's judicial system consists of district courts and a high court in Thimphu (capital city of Bhutan). The king is the highest court of appeal. The high court of Thimphu is known as the Royal Court of justice which is the Supreme Court of the country. it was set up in 1968 to review appeals from the district courts. Until then, district courts authorities administered the law. It comprises of six judges. The judges of the high court and district courts are appointed by the king.

    The judiciary is not independent of the king. The king exercises strong, active and direct power over the judiciary. Village headsmen adjudicate minor offences and the district officials adjudicate the major crimes. The legal traditions are based on the religious laws of Buddhism. Bhutan's civil and criminal codes are rooted in the Tsa Yig, a code established in 1616 by Shabdrung, the first Monk ruler. This code was revised in 1957 but it retained all the substance of the 17th century code. The justice administration system is yet to be modernized. Provisions for professional and qualified defence attorneys, lawyers, solicitors and jury trials are nonexistent. The current judges do not possess any university degree on law. Concerned government departments investigate and conduct the prosecution in cases against the State and the government.

    Bhutan Moves Towards Democracy With Specialty
    Bhutan's call for democracy was a top – down sermon by the king himself, Jigme Singhye Wangchuck, much against the unwillingness of and initial resistance by the people. While in his neighborhood, the Nepal King was hell – bent on going to any length to cling to power and the military regimes in Pakistan and Myanmar were most unwilling to abandon autocracy, the king decided in 2005 to institute democracy by handling over executive powers to the elected representatives. The new constitution of Bhutan makes it compulsory for future Kings of Bhutan to retire at the age of 65. The king can also be impeached or removed by a two – thirds vote in the parliament. Bhutan will now have a bicameral legislation having 47 members in the lower house and 20 members in the upper house. The Bhutan elections were unique not only because they were ordered by the king but also because, unlike in other South Asian countries, educational qualification was made an important factor.

    Under the newly framed election laws, no one can contest parliamentary elections without having a graduate degree. Bhutan has a small graduate community of just 3000 persons. This is also indicative of the fact that in a country where the rate of literacy is still around 42 percent, the graduate community may mostly come from the upper and elite sections of the society.

    Elections were also constrained as the contesting parties were screened before they were given permission to participate. The Druk People's Unity Party (DPUP) was disqualified after scrutiny for what was described as lack of credible leadership. It was alleged that more than 75 percent of the party members were school drop outs.

    The new electoral laws also bar a person from contesting if any of his/her parents was a migrant Bhutanese. The parents of the contestants have to be Bhutan – born. The electoral process was also kept free from the religious issues. Monks were not allowed to vote. No wonder, there were no sensitive or contentious issues.

    First Elections And Brand New Election Commission

    Ringing in the change is Bhutan's brand new Election Commission. It has successfully held one round of mock elections (practice elections to make people familiarize with elections) and plans another round later this month in the run up to the big event. The EVMs have been funded by India and observers from the UN, Australia and India are in Bhutan to oversee the exercise. There are four mock parties – Red Druk (dragon) for industrial development, Blue Druk (dragon) for free and fair society, Green Druk (dragon) for ecological sustainability and Yellow Druk (dragon) for traditional values - contesting the mock polls. Each party released a mock manifesto a month ago for shaping Bhutan's future with different approach and the voters are now being taught to press a button on the EVM that corresponds to the party of their choice. In the capital city of Thimphu where over 25 polling stations have been set up, women were also out in large numbers.

    After the success of the mock elections Election Commission also conducted successful elections in March, 2008.As many as 74.4 percent of the more than 318,000 registered voters cast their votes. The Election Commission gave one lakh Bhutanese rupees, in addition to essential election material, to each candidate towards poll expenses. A candidate could also spend one lakh Bhutanese rupees of his/her own to boost his/her electoral prospects. The commission also organized a television debate between the leaders of the contending parties.

    The two parties which took part in elections were People's Democratic Party (PDP) and Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) or Bhutan's Peace Party. The election results upset all calculations. Analysts in Bhutan and India had expected a close fight, with a difference of not more than five to ten seats between the winner and the loser. Even DPT, which emerged victorious with an overwhelming majority, had not expected to win more than 30 of 47 seats it contested. It won 45seats. The PDP, which was routed, asked for re poll or at least a serious investigation into factors that caused such a landslide in favor of the DPT. The DPT leader and the prime minister elected Jigme Y. Thinley has promised accountable, corruption free and transparent governance down to the constituency level.

    A Critical Analysis of Bhutan's Transition To Democracy

    The democracy in Bhutan started with a weak opposition which was welcomed by many international communities while some criticized it as 100,000 of the refugees from Nepal were not included in voters' list and were not allowed to participate in the elections. Election Commission also disqualified a candidate of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) who tried to play up the problem of Bhutanese of Nepali origin. This was done to send out a firm message that there was no room in Bhutan for communal and sectarian politics. It was a clear decision to keep the Nepali issue out of the political process. But even then there are nine Nepali – speaking candidates belonging to DPT have been elected to parliament, but this number is too small as compared with the size of the ethnic Nepali population in Bhutan even after the disbursement of the Nepal – based refugees.

    With the Bhutan's peaceful transition from monarchy to democracy, the new struggles have arrived for Bhutan. Any country's transaction requires change of fundamentals over which the country has existed. The transition of Bhutan from monarchy to democracy has also raised problems for the country such as – political ideologies. Till before i.e. at the time of monarchy the country was under a single man, what the man said was correct and no one was there to object him but after attaining democracy the government has got divided in two loops and one loop having its own ideas for development of the state and other loop to object it. Religion could be another example of the problem faced by democratic Bhutan but Bhutan has made it very clear that it won't mix the lines of democracy and religion by asking the monks not to vote.

    How is democratic Bhutan deal with economy? Till monarch rule Bhutan has seen the phase of development of the people but now democratic Bhutan has to see development of economy which is the most important element for becoming a developed nation. And the most important question lies with Bhutan is that how will it handle the diplomatic pressures of two largest neighbor nations?

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