Bhutan heads to the polls for final round of elections with economy in focus

Both political parties, BTP and PDP, have aligned manifestos, pledging to rejuvenate the economy through strategies such as harnessing hydro-electric power, boosting agricultural growth, and addressing climate change risks in this carbon-negative nation.

Bhutan, the Himalayan kingdom celebrated for its unique Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, commenced the final round of national parliamentary elections on Tuesday, 9th January. These elections, shaping the country’s fourth government in the 15 years since the establishment of democracy, are notably centred around economic concerns arising from the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Initiating at 8 a.m. (0200 GMT), the voting process is set to conclude at 4 p.m., with the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) projecting results to be unveiled by Wednesday. Bhutan’s transition to democracy began in 2008, two years after former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated, yielding the throne to his Oxford-educated son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.

The country, strategically positioned between China and India, has historically prioritized its ties with India, its primary donor and economic partner. While ongoing talks with China aim to resolve border disputes, a matter closely watched by India due to its border tensions with China, it surprisingly hasn’t dominated the election discourse.

With less than 800,000 inhabitants and a landmass approximately equivalent to Switzerland, Bhutan’s economic concerns loom large. The nation, reliant on aid and tourism, faces the challenge of revitalizing its $3 billion economy, a task complicated by the lingering impact of the pandemic despite the nation lifting restrictions in September 2022.

Economic revival takes centre stage as nearly half a million voters choose from 94 candidates fielded by the Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the latter securing victory in the primary round last November. Voters, echoing sentiments of economic hardship, express the pressing need for both economic as well as individual growth. A 49-year-old voter from Punakha emphasized the struggle of high unemployment and inadequate salaries, resonating with the broader sentiment in the country.

Both political parties, BTP and PDP, have aligned manifestos, pledging to rejuvenate the economy through strategies such as harnessing hydroelectric power, boosting agricultural growth, and addressing climate change risks in this carbon-negative nation. Promises also extend to promoting investment and bolstering foreign exchange reserves, currently at $464.66 million, down from $759.16 million a year ago, according to the central bank.

However, scepticism prevails among analysts and voters alike, given past experiences of unfulfilled promises in the three elections since 2008. Political analyst Sonam Tshering notes the electorate’s growing maturity and discretion, emphasizing the scrutiny applied to political pledges.

The Bhutan Tendrel Party, a newcomer formed in 2022 and led by a former bureaucrat, competes with the People’s Democratic Party, founded in 2007 by Tshering Tobgay, who previously led the government post the 2013 elections. Notably, no party has secured a second term to head the government since 2008.

As Bhutan awaits the election results, the spotlight remains on the incoming government’s ability to translate campaign promises into tangible economic progress. The Bhutanese electorate, having evolved over the years, stands watchful, cognizant of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for their nation.