Lessons from Bhutan: Nurturing Democracy

An overview
Cham Dance
Cham dance performance © Karma Choden

Bhutan has been an example of how good governance can form the backbone of democracy if nurtured deftly. In many respects, Bhutanese democracy is a success story in good governance. For a small landlocked country in South Asia, between India and China, Bhutan has carved out an exemplary approach to development and democracy. It has gone on to demonstrate how good leadership and foresight can sow the seeds of democracy.

Under a monarchical system of governance established in 1907, Bhutan navigated the development landscape with astute strategies and policies that ensured security, sovereignty and socio-economic development whereby both country and citizens alike could thrive. The end of the self-imposed isolation in the 1960s has been characterized by transformative progress. The progress was largely informed by the Buddhist philosophy of seeking the right causes and conditions that give rise to happiness. A decade later this was encapsulated in Gross National Happiness (GNH) that places emphasis on equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, conservation of the environment, preservation and promotion of culture and good governance.

This progress was further underpinned in the Five-Year Plans which laid out national economic development plans for the government. For the first few five-year plans the emphasis was primarily on roads, health care, education and forestry. Bhutan began to embrace modernization by slowly extending emphasis to agriculture, hydropower, and mining after the fourth five-year plan. Currently in its 12th Five-Year plan, the per capita income has risen from $ 333 in 1980 to $ 3412 in 2021, making it one of the highest in the South Asia region.

Although largely dependent on aid, Bhutan’s development transformation was brought on by hydropower generation and subsequent investments in human capital which contributed significantly to the improvement of education and health sectors. Bhutan continues to offer free quality basic education and universal healthcare to all its citizens. In 2020, the general literacy rate was 71.4%(2017) while the primary school enrollment was 92.94 % [Ministry of Education, RGOB (2020), Annual Education Statistics]. The death rate has decreased from 28.908% in 1960 to 0.180% in 2020 with the elimination of vaccine-preventable diseases which brought about significant progress in health and wellbeing of the people, and increased the life expectancy from 34 years in 1960 to 72 years in 2021. Access to improved drinking water has increased for 98% of the Bhutanese population, according to the WHO contributing significantly to the lower mortality rate.

In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the devolution of power came from the throne since the democratic process was set in motion as early as the 1950s with legal reforms that brought about the abolition of slavery and the establishment of the first national assembly of Bhutan. Politically, the decades that followed were marked with transformations of comprehensive reforms to the legislative, social and political scenes with decentralization of power to the district and local levels which aimed to further empower the people.

This decentralization process was further cemented when in 1998 King Jigme Singye Wangchuck handed over executive power to a cabinet of ministers with the King serving as the Head of State thereafter. The move to hand over executive power to the cabinet of ministers would prove to be an exercise in governance for these individuals, the majority of whom will go on to serve in the ministerial position in the first democratically elected government. Upon strengthening of the executive, legislative and state institutions, and in what is a rarity, the King directed the drafting of a Constitution for Bhutan in 2001 to enable the protection of its citizens and Bhutanese values. By 2005, the draft of the Constitution was distributed widely to solicit comments from the Bhutanese populace. The same year the King also announced his abdication plans to make way for parliamentary democracy and hand over the reins to the Crown Prince, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.

The timely recognition and political transition to a parliamentary democracy can be appreciated in the larger scheme of things that Bhutan was no longer isolated from the world. Radio broadcasting had begun as early as 1973 with the first radio station formed by a voluntary group of youths known as the National Youth Association of Bhutan (NYAB), while television and internet made its advent in 1999. The impact of ICT and social media has been linked strongly to influences that engage and shape public opinions by further widening the scope of democratic discourse and building national consciousness of the Bhutanese people. Findings from a study[MOIC (2013), Bhutan Information and Media Impact Study (refer Page 60)] indicate that Bhutanese media have played an active role in informing and educating Bhutanese society by fostering public discourse, transparency, accountability and corruption towards a responsive public sector in the country.

The role of a free and independent media towards good governance and vibrant democracy was recognized and encouraged by the leadership in the country. The launch of the first two private papers in 2006, Bhutan Times and Bhutan Observer, heralded a new wave of privatization in media.  The following years saw a mushrooming of several private newspapers and radio stations.  With the keen foresight that the fledging Bhutanese media would require hand-holding, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck commanded the establishment of Bhutan Media Foundation in the beginning of 2010 through a royal charter to ‘foster the growth of a strong and responsible media capable of playing an important role in the social, economic and political growth of the nation’ to enable them to ‘carry out their duties, without fear and favour, in the interest of democracy’. In 2011, the King further conferred the National Order of Merit (Gold) to the media fraternity in recognition of their efforts. The press freedom index ranking for Bhutan has continually improved with the latest jump from 67 in 2020 to 65 in 2021 with a score of 28.86 indicating greater media autonomy.

Post 2005, the announcement of abdication brought about a systemic approach to devolution. What followed was an extensive voter education program to enable the citizens to understand the electoral process which by early 2007 culminated into the mock elections. In order to capture the responses and feedback on the draft Constitution, the King along with the Crown Prince travelled extensively to meet the citizens throughout the nation.

With over 100 years of effective rule under the monarchy, the introduction of democracy was alarming against a backdrop of continued peace and prosperity. Without an ensuing legitimacy crisis of the existing political system, it baffled many with this unprecedented move. The overriding emotion expressed by the people during the public consultations was apprehension especially when the old system had largely served the Bhutanese well.

However, in due course the citizens warmed up to the idea of democracy and they went to the polls in March 2008. Since then, the Bhutanese have participated robustly and gone on to elect three different governments in the 13 years since its transition. It would be interesting, however, to note the impact of change in government every five years will have on the continuity of development efforts, even though there has been careful planning to sync the five-year plans around elections schedules. It also remains to be seen if electing different governments is indicative of an underlying wariness for incumbency or if the Bhutanese people are still experimenting on the path that was carefully drawn out by the leadership to find a government that can best replicate the aspirations held by the monarchs for its people.