BHUTAN HDR 2019 ABOUT DEMOCRACY
As one who has been privileged to support the development of democratic institutions in Bhutan during the years 2011-16 (as Director of the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy, DIPD), and who has also at some point in his career been a UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, it is great to read the recently published Human Development Report for Bhutan titled TEN YEARS OF DEMOCRACY IN BHUTAN, developed by the UNDP office in cooperation with the Parliament of Bhutan.
The report comes at the right time, just after the 2018 third parliamentary election, following the introduction of parliamentary democracy and the first election in 2008. Now is a good time to take stock, because enough of lessons have been learned. Hopefully the new government, led by the third political party that has won in as many elections (2008, 2013 and 2018), will make sure that the rather modest proposals for changes will in fact be implemented. I believes this will be helpful for Bhutanese democracy, although I respect the reluctance I have often sensed when I worked in Bhutan towards dramatic changes.
The entire report is available here: UNDP NHDR 2019. If you want a quick overview, I can recommend the Executive Summary, which also includes the 20 recommendations proposed by the team writing the report – and signed off by the Speaker of the Parliament of Bhutan and the UNDP Resident Representative.
Overall, it is a useful report, which also has the quality of being easily accessible and thus also easy for media and others to communicate to a broader section of Bhutanese than normally read such reports. I hope all the political parties will be helpful in doing that, as well as the civil society organisations. There is a lot of material to be digested and discussed.
Below, I will comment on a few aspects of the report. To start with, I will comment on the relationship between democracy and social and economic progress, which is a key conceptual idea of the report – and by the way of the UNDP. I know, because from 2005 to the end 2010 I played a key role in the democratic governance unit of the organization, and this thinking was key in our discussions. Following this, I will then comment on the recommendations relating to the political parties. Finally I will offer some observations on the understanding of civil society.
CORRELATING DEMOCRACY AND PROGRESS
Having been part of the international democracy support system for many years, both serving in civil society and in the UN, I am a strong believer in the need for all societies to allow citizens to assemble peacefully, speak freely and vote secretly, just to mention a few of the principles that belong to our notion of democracy. I also believe that this should be the case, irrespective of whether it produces the social and economic progress citizens desire. Meaning that I understand the principles and institutions of democracy as important ends in themselves, not only or primarily as vehicles or means for other ends.
Obviously, it would be great if we could argue, based on the evidence available from development processes around the world, that there is always a direct and positive correlation between the introduction of democracy and improvements in health, education, infrastructure, employment, production, etc. Unfortunately, this is not the case! At least, even if we take a positive reading of the literature as our point of departure, the evidence is not as convincing as we would like to see.
In fact, we also have evidence to the contrary, showing that authoritarian regimes – where there is no freedom of expression, very limited open access to information and no freedom to vote for the political party of your choice – can produce progress in the areas mentioned above. China is the example used most often, because China can take credit for many of the hundreds of millions of people who have been lifted out of poverty during recent decades. Another example often mentioned is Rwanda, which in many respects formally speaking is a democracy, but in my own understanding with a rather top-down and authoritarian style of leadership. Rwanda can pride itself of much social and economic progress since President Kagame took over.
The HDR Report 2019 embarks on a lengthy journey to document that in the case of Bhutan, the introduction of democracy a decade ago has in fact delivered progress. I can understand the urge to do exactly that. This is what citizens are likely to demand. Why else should a democracy have been introduced, at a time when the large majority were in fact happy with the King? And many actually considered the transition to parliamentary and political party-based democracy as a major mistake. But documenting that this has in fact been the case is not easy, and I am not convinced by the report. While I feel that the survey used – “A Perspective Survey on a Decade of Parliamentary Democracy 2018” – offers useful information about how citizens feel about democracy as such, I am not sure it also documents a positive correlation between democracy and progress. The fact that people “think so” is not evidence in the manner researchers will look at it.
At least the report should have asked some obvious question: Would it have been possible for the pre-2008 system to deliver the progress that has been seen during the 2008-2018 period? And if those writing the report had answered “no” to that question, they should have explained why not. In addition, it could have been useful to compare the 2008-2018 period (or even further back for that matter) with the 1998-2008 period, to see if there are any general conclusions that could point in the direction of a positive correlation between democracy and progress.
I would like to add another dimension to this debate, because Bhutan is a very small country with very dominant neighbors – just like the country I served as a UN representative for some years, Botswana. Certain decisions taken in other countries could easily create havoc in Bhutan, making it difficult for the government to deliver the social and economic progress planned and expected. This would happen without any deterioration in the democratic institutions of Bhutan. And this was also what Botswana experienced as the country moved down the road towards middle income country status. In its effort to diversify the economy and create employment for an increasingly well-educated population, Botswana would take initiatives – later to be countered by decisions taken by the much stronger government in South Africa.
To end on a positive or optimistic note, I would add that there is no doubt in my mind that a democracy is much better positioned to handle certain challenges of progress than authoritarian regimes. Like Amartya Sen has argued, democracies will normally not be plagued by hunger, simply because media will report on it and people will react towards it, unlike what will be the case in authoritarian regimes. This also points to the ability – or at least the willingness – of democracies to deal with inequality. However, here we must also accept that in recent decades, we have seen a widening of the gap between rich and poor in many democracies around the world!
TWO KEY SUGGESTIONS FOR POLITICAL PARTIES
Having worked with the political parties in Bhutan for a number of years, I have studied the recommendations in this area with great interest. I am happy to conclude that many of them make sense, and I believe they will strengthen the Bhutanese version of democracy. At the same time, I will repeat what I have often preached in the past, also to my friends in Bhutan: We need more changes in certain areas, but in two areas in particular.
One area is that of the election system as such, with the political parties approved by the Election Commission first contesting in a primary round, allowing the two parties receiving the highest support to compete in the decisive run-off. I do understand the background for this system, trying to avoid some of the ills of elections in other countries in the region. But the reality is that it makes it very difficult to develop a vibrant political party system, because only two of the parties will have the capacity to be active in any meaningful sense during the following four years – until the next election is approaching. Why not let all of the four or five parties compete in one campaign? I believe the first past the post system adopted by Bhutan will be able to manage this.
Linked to this is the decision by the makers of the Constitution and the election laws to offer state funding for the election campaign rather than for the running of the political party machineries. I know of course that this has been discussed in the past, and a proposal to reverse – funding the machinery and let the parties themselves raise funding for the election campaign – could not pass Parliament. I still believe this was a mistake. In a rich country like Denmark, there is no way the membership fees paid to the parties can fund the infrastructure of the parties – paying for costs for developing a program, organizing meetings, travelling around the country, paying the salary of a few employees, participate in international meetings, etc. Obviously the two parties elected into Parliament will be much better positioned to deliver in these areas. Some will argue that this will increase the number of parties. I doubt it, if introduced in the right manner. This could be to link the funding to the number of votes received in the primary round, and of course the parties must have external audits of the spending.
I am a bit surprised that the HDR Report does not deal with these rather fundamental issues for a political party system.
OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS FOR POLITICAL PARTIES
I agree with the thrust of most of the recommendations, so I will only comment on a few of the recommendations to the political parties or the political system in general.
It is suggested that “Bhutanese parties need to adopt transparent and farsighted ideologies that reflect their values and priorities.” International IDEA and other democracy support organisations have been arguing the same for years now. I am not sure this will make much of a difference. Like Thomas Carothers, one of the best researchers dealing with political parties, responded some years ago when the same was discussed for parties in Egypt following the Arab Spring. Carothers just stated that how should we expect this to happen when the two US political parties have no coherent program. They run campaigns based on focus group research and whatever issue is at play on the social media. In the context of Bhutan, I feel that the reverence towards the GNH thinking makes it difficult for the parties. To be helpful, I would suggest that a detailed study is undertaken by an outside observer, to look into the present party programs. This could be a place to start.
Not surprisingly, Bhutan is experiencing the same type of lack of trust towards politicians as the rest of the world has seen for many years. It is suggested that the electorate is encouraged to become more responsible in electing candidates, and politicians are prompted to be more courageous and open in their intentions. I am not sure I fully understand what the intention is with this proposal. The first part seems meaningless – unless it is suggested that evidence shows that citizens are irresponsible. Is there evidence of this? And how a more courageous approach by politicians will change negative perceptions I am not sure.
The lack of women elected remains a serious obstacle towards Bhutan being a full democracy, and I say that knowing very well that despite more than 100 years of efforts, Denmark has still not achieved a 50-50 situation. The report suggests that “there is a need to step up advocacy to break away from social and cultural norms and stereotypical attitudes that result in gender discrimination. Ensuring that more women are in leadership roles could build on the use of special measures such as quotas to increase the share of women in Parliament.” I fully agree. I also believe that efforts like those of the Bhutan Network for Empowering Women, BNEW should be supported by the state. However, more forceful ideas need to be entertained. One of course is that of having quotas, which we know to be effective elsewhere in the world. I would even suggest that political parties should not be approved to run by the Electoral Commission unless it can document an even number of male and female candidates.
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF CIVIL SOCIETY?
I am in full agreement with the argument in the report that “Bhutan needs policies and legislation that gives organizations more space to expand their reach and effectiveness, including in supporting vulnerable sections of society, and building the awareness and capacity of citizens. The State should also facilitate access to adequate funding both from internal and external sources.” There is an abundance of research on the important roles of a vibrant civil society for a vibrant democracy, and this can easily be used as an inspiration for how to proceed in Bhutan.
But as I have repeatedly stated, also when visiting Bhutan, government and other authorities need to first understand and then accept that there are two roles equally important for CSOs. One is that of service delivery, often the financial lifeline for an organization. The other is advocacy of ideas and policies. Governments typically love the first, because having CSOs deliver health, food and education can make life easier for them. And they hate the second, because governments will often be directly in the firing line.
What we see around the world today is shrinking space for civil society. It would be great to see Bhutan spearhead an approach for enlarging space, thus taking the lead once again, as it has done so well in its work on Gross National Happiness.