Winning 30 of 47 seats in the final round of Bhutan’s fourth general election on January 9, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is set to form the next government in the country and party chief Tshering Tobgay will be sworn in as the new prime minister.
This will be Tobgay’s second stint as prime minister, after he helmed the PDP government from 2013-2018.
Five parties took part in the primary round of the election on November 30, when and the PDP and the Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP) secured 42.5 and 19.6 percent of the votes, respectively, making them eligible to contest in the final face-off on January 9.
This is the fourth peaceful power transfer since the Bhutanese monarchy introduced democracy to the Himalayan kingdom in 2008.
The recent elections were refreshing. In a region where concerns about vote-rigging, an unlevel playing field, and toxic bashing of electoral opponents plague elections, the vote in Bhutan saw no political violence. Equally refreshing was the message of solidarity from both parties, “burying the differences and working together to fulfill the vision of the king and the country.” Candidates used social media to reach out to potential voters but there were only a few cases of “fake news” or misinformation on social media.
The PDP was expected to win the election. It came on top in 39 demkhongs (constituencies) in the primary round. Indeed, some were concerned that the PDP would win a supermajority.
However, the BTP improved on its primary performance, and with 17 seats, it will be an opposition party with some bite in the parliament.
Voter turnout fell from 71.46 percent in the 2018 general election to around 65.6 percent in the latest election. Another concern was the poor representation of women. There were only six female candidates in the fray and of them, only two – one from each party – won election to parliament, although women comprise around 51 percent of the electorate. According to analysts, women were not forthcoming as candidates.
Ironically, economic woes were at the center of the election for a nation that pioneered the concept of Gross National Happiness to measure development. Bhutan’s GDP has grown at a meager average of 1.6 percent in the last five years despite recovering to 4.5 percent in 2022. Three out of 10 youths are unemployed, and a record number of young people are migrating abroad seeking better opportunities. Similarly, one in every eight people struggle to meet their basic needs for food and other necessities.
Bhutan is facing “unprecedented economic challenges and mass exodus,” warned Tobgay in the run-up to the election. The PDP’s manifesto started ominously: “We [Bhutan] are in the midst of unprecedented challenges. Our nation’s economy is teetering on the brink of collapse.” It pointed out the need to correct course immediately.
The PDP has acknowledged that its responsibilities are colossal. It made 13 pledges, promising to put the Bhutanese “economy back on track, enable private businesses to thrive, increase job opportunities, revitalize our education and healthcare systems, uplift the power, empower civil servants, transform agriculture, and boost national revenue generation” overthe next five years.
Specifically, it promised to double Bhutan’s GDP by $5 billion, create 10,000 jobs annually, increase the manufacturing sector’s contribution to GDP from 6 to 30 percent, and increase foreign direct investment (FDI) from $500 million to $6 billion during its term in office. These are very ambitious targets.
To achieve these goals, it intends to implement a $180 million stimulus plan and establish an Economic Development Board in the first Lhengye Zhungtsho, or ministerial meeting. Besides, it aims to establish special economic zones and even allow the establishment of casinos in the southern border towns bordering India to attract investment and tourism. Similarly, it will undertake six mega and seven small hydropower projects and build highways and railways in Southern Bhutan linked to India.
The proposals align with the Gelepu Special Administrative Region (SAR) announced by Bhutan’s King Jigme Wangchuck in his National Day address on December 17. The SAR, which borders the Northeast Indian state of Assam, will be a vibrant economic strip serving the enormous market in South and Southeast Asia. The King believes the project will help revitalize the Bhutanese economy, provide high-paying jobs and attract FDI. The Tobgay government will carry the project forward, though the King would “personally be involved” in the project, too.
The success of such policies will require close cooperation with foreign countries, especially India, though foreign policy took a backseat in the election. India is a major trading partner, source of foreign aid and investment, and buyer of hydropower. The two countries maintain close relations. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose Thimphu as his first foreign visit after becoming prime minister in 2014. Tobgay considers the Bhutan-India ties a role model for other countries and has promised special economic ties with India.
The success of the Gelepu project will depend upon India’s support, too. New Delhi has announced many connectivity projects, including a railway line connecting Assam to Gelepu. The additional hydroelectricity will be sold to India. Thimphu will expect to attract large Indian investment for and in the Gelepu project.
The victory of Tobgay and the PDP is seen as a win for New Delhi. Tobgay is considered a pro-India figure and developed cordial relations with New Delhi during his previous prime ministerial stint from 2013 to 2018. Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Tobgay on his win and expressed interest in working together to “strengthen unique ties of friendship and cooperation.”
Despite these close relations, India’s government is anxious about the imminent Bhutan-China border deal. Beijing is determined to resolve boundary issues with China at the earliest and establish diplomatic relations. Thimphu is also fast-tracking boundary talks with China, which India watching keenly. The resolution of the boundary dispute could impinge upon the security of India’s Chicken Neck, the narrow strip of territory connecting India’s Northeast to the Indian mainland.
Tobgay and the new government have an unenviable challenge. They face a “grave existential crisis” at home and a delicate geopolitical balance in the region.
Nevertheless, they have made an audacious promise to transform Bhutan into a developed nation in the next five years. Previous governments have failed to keep their promises, and the electorate has not continued any government to a second consecutive term. PDP’s election slogan was “the promise we will deliver.”
It remains to be seen if they have the power, endurance, and intelligence of a horse, their election symbol, to fulfill these promises.