This banner features ripe pine corns above Tandin Ney in Thimphu. Picture taken on April 15.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

The mock election dilemma

A mock election campaign being staged in Paro College of Education 
(As the second parliamentary elections draw near, I thought we might like to look back at how Bhutan prepared for the first parliamentary elections. I wrote this article in March 2008 when mock elections were held )

The primary round of nation‐wide parliamentary mock election is over and results are declared. The two winning parties, Druk Yellow Party and Druk Red Party, will contest in the general elections in which votes will be cast for candidates, not parties. The voter turnout of close to 51% is encouraging, but not impressive. It was reported that elections went smoothly despite some hiccups in some constituencies.

The success of any mock election, though, does not rest with smooth voting and relaying of results. The important considerations should be how our people voted and how much they understood the concept of voting beyond the mechanical use of electronic voting machine. The purpose of mock elections should go beyond sensitizing our people to the use of EVM and voting procedures. The mock elections should inform our people of the basic concepts of democracy like analysis of political agendas, choice of leadership, exercise of their rights and, above all, the significance of going to the polls.

The extensive media coverage of the elections revealed that some of our people in the remoter parts of the kingdom did not understand what the mock election was all about. And it does not come as a surprise given the fact that even many of the so‐called educated lot do not understand democracy beyond some received notions like elections, campaigns, protests and power.

It is commendable that BBS covered live the preparations for and happenings of the mock elections across the country. But the live broadcasts were more of a show than substance. The questions to the dzongdas of 20 dzongkhags rarely went beyond enquiries into unimportant statistical details like the number of polling stations and polling booths. One same question that was asked to all the dzongdas was: How is the preparation for the mock elections going on in your dzongkhag? And, as one would expect, the answer from all the dzongdas, without exception, was: Very well! The next question that was routinely asked was: How many polling stations and polling booths are there in your dzongkhag? I wonder why that question was too important to ignore. There were some sensible questions asked, though. One of them was: How do our people understand the mock elections? The response from all the dzongdas, except for Pemagatshel dzongda, was: People have been adequately educated on democracy and they fully understand what the mock elections are. This unequivocal response from dzongdas is hard to believe given a lot of evident lack of understanding of democracy among our rural population and given the fact that democracy can be more practically learnt than taught.

Also participating in the live broadcast were senior officials from the Election Commission of Bhutan. While their views regarding electoral procedures were educative, some of their responses to the questions of the general public seemed arbitrary. Some of the members of public, for instance, called in to express their doubt that some of our people did not understand what the mock elections meant and that it would be a big challenge. But the view of the Election Commission officials was that the public had been thoroughly informed and educated on democracy that there should not be anybody who did not understand the mock elections. That view is too far‐fetched to believe and it would be a bottle‐neck to further educating our public. Despite the fact that the Election Commission has vigorously tried to educate public on electoral procedures and democracy as a whole, it is too soon to declare that our people are fully democratically educated. While the official view is that the Election Commission of Bhutan has done all it can to inform and educate public and, therefore, it is not correct to say that many of our people are still ignorant of the unfolding events, we must face the reality. The reality is that many of our people are still ignorant of democratic changes taking place in the country. This information is not far to seek. Bhutan is a small country with close‐knit communities. And electoral officers, polling officers, returning officers, observers are all our friends, colleagues, relatives, acquaintances. They are the ones staring real situations in the face.

The fact that our people lacked democratic education is amply demonstrated by how they voted in the mock elections. It is reported that Druk Yellow party won a landslide victory chiefly because our people associated yellow colour with His Majesty’s scarf. Agendas were not a concern for many. 

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