Bhutan’s National Council Election 2023: A setback for women

 Local market in Thimphu

Local market in Thimphu

© By Steve Evans on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

At the recent National Council (NC) election held on 20th April in Bhutan only one woman was elected to the 25-member Chamber of Parliament. The result was particularly surprising because women voters outnumbered men in the election.

The NC is the equivalent of the Upper House in Bhutan’s Parliament, which comprises His Majesty the King, the National Assembly, and the NC. The NC consists of 20 members directly elected by people from 20 districts and five eminent members appointed by His Majesty the King. It functions as the House of Review. According to the Constitution of Bhutan, besides its legislative functions, the NC shall act as the House of Review on matters affecting the security and sovereignty of the country and the interests of the nation and the people that need to be brought to the notice of the King, the Prime Minister, and the National Assembly.

Out of 265,441 Bhutanese who voted in the election, 134,805 were women and 130,636 were men. A total of only five women from four districts, namely Mongar, Sarpang, Punakha and Zhemgang, contested the election. Even in these aforementioned four districts where women candidates competed against men, there were more female eligible voters.

Tshering Tshomo, 39, who is a former teacher, is the lone candidate to be elected from the central district of Zhemgang, one of the poorest districts in the country. She is among the 10 former teachers who swept the election. Tshering Tshomo’s election to the NC means women make up only 5 percent of the elected members of the House. The consolation comes from His Majesty’s appointment of eminent members, which is more gender-balanced.

The performance of women candidates in the NC election has been consistently dismal. In the first election held in 2008, out of six contestants, only four were elected. In the 2013 election, four women contested, but none were elected. In the 2018 election, out of the four women who contested, only two were elected. Analysts often say Bhutanese voters, including women, do not trust women in leadership positions because traditionally leadership positions have largely been a male domain. There have been many programs conducted to encourage the participation of women in elections and build their capacity for leadership positions, but even these programs have had very little impact. Traditional and cultural stereotypes hold sway over people’s perceptions of women in leadership positions.  

Lamenting the poor electoral success of women, a newspaper writes, ‘However, logic, as always, fails to come to terms with reality when we know that more than 55 percent of our electorates are women.’ Moreover, commentators say very few women are appointed in decision-making positions, which subsequently creates a vicious cycle whereby women themselves do not believe in women leaders.  

Tshering Tshomo, meanwhile, has said she supports a quota for women's representation in Parliament. In the past, the Parliament of Bhutan discussed instituting quotas for women candidates until the country achieved a notable number of women in key public positions, including electoral positions. However, the proposal was swiftly shot down with even women in elected positions arguing against it. They said instituting quotas would lead to a perception that women are less capable than men and would undermine their intrinsic capability.

Like in the previous elections, this year’s NC election repeated another pattern but with higher intensity – anti-incumbency. Out of the 10 serving members who re-contested, only two were elected. The anti-incumbency factor has been a consistent pattern in all elections. The return rate at 20 percent this year is the lowest compared to the previous two elections. In 2013, the return rate was 34 percent and in 2018, it stood at 42 percent. Many of the candidates who contested in the election repeatedly have been elected through sympathy votes. With the candidates promising little in terms of development activities, the largely rural voters tend to view the NC as an opportunity that must be given to different individuals.

This year’s election saw the highest voter turnout to date, i.e., 54.64 percent. The capital district of Thimphu saw the lowest turnout of 43 percent while the remote district of Gasa saw the highest turnout of 78 percent. A total of 89 candidates contested in the election, which translates into 38 candidates or 29.92 percent fewer than the number of candidates in the last election. The Election Commission of Bhutan this year required the candidates to have at least 10 years of work experience on top of the minimum educational qualification of a Bachelor’s degree. In previous elections, candidates did not require any work experience to contest the NC election. This led to even candidates who were fresh out of college getting elected, undermining the experience and maturity of the House. The rule was revised to bring more maturity to the House of Review. Whether this will bring maturity to the House is yet to be seen.    

Meanwhile, Tshering Tshomo will cut a lone figure in the NC. But she plans to make her presence count. “We [women] should be determined and confident. If we think of ourselves as inferior to men, then we will never be able to do anything worthwhile,” she told a local newspaper. But hers will be a lone voice and will probably make little difference in the Parliament.