Political landscape in Bhutan: recent elections, diplomatic challenges, and economic priorities

The recent Bhutanese parliamentary election marked a significant political development as Tshering Tobgay’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) secured a majority of seats, addressing concerns surrounding the economic crisis in the Himalayan nation.

In the recent Bhutanese parliamentary election, former Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) emerged victorious by securing the majority of seats, as reported by the Bhutan Broadcasting Service. The PDP won 30 out of the 47 National Assembly seats, paving the way for their return to power.

The election was notably dominated by concerns surrounding the economic crisis in the Himalayan nation. The Bhutan Tendrel Party secured 17 seats in the election. The victory for the PDP marks a significant political development, and the new government will face the challenges posed by the economic landscape as they assume office.

The recently concluded Bhutanese parliamentary election marked the country’s fourth general election since its transition from a traditional monarchy to a parliamentary form of government in 2008. The Election Commission of Bhutan is anticipated to make its final declaration on Wednesday. The election campaigns were centred around themes of economic growth and opportunity, despite Bhutan’s unique use of a “Gross National Happiness” index in place of the more conventional Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Both major political parties participating in the election, Tshering Tobgay’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bhutan Tendrel Party, adhere to a constitutionally enshrined philosophy emphasizing a government’s success measured by the “happiness and wellbeing of the people.” Tshering Tobgay, aged 58, is expected to assume the role of prime minister for the second time. He previously served as the leader of the opposition in Bhutan’s inaugural parliament in 2008, coinciding with the commencement of the present king’s reign.

Throughout the election campaign, Tobgay raised concerns about Bhutan’s “unprecedented economic challenges and mass exodus.” As the nation looks forward to the Election Commission’s official announcement, the incoming government, regardless of party, is poised to address these challenges while staying true to the overarching commitment to the happiness and well-being of the Bhutanese people.

The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in Bhutan, as outlined in its manifesto, highlighted government statistics indicating that one in every eight people faced challenges in meeting their basic needs for food and other necessities. This revelation underscored the economic difficulties experienced by a significant portion of the population, adding a critical dimension to the election discourse.

The electoral process involved approximately half a million voters who had the responsibility of selecting members of parliament from a pool of 94 candidates presented by two major parties, the Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP) and the PDP. The significance of the election was magnified by the fact that a primary round of voting in November had already narrowed down the field by eliminating three other political parties, including the then-governing centre-left Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa party.

WHERE INDIA STANDS

India has long been a key ally and donor for Bhutan, playing a crucial role in supporting its economic development and recovery. The relationship extends to various areas, including substantial contributions to infrastructure projects within Bhutan. Furthermore, India’s potential as a client for Bhutan’s hydroelectric power has been a topic of consideration, representing a significant economic opportunity for the Himalayan nation.

However, recent years have witnessed strains in the relationship between India and China, and Bhutan has found itself caught in the middle of geopolitical tensions. In 2017, Bhutan became the focal point of a territorial dispute between India and China, with both countries engaging in clashes near the Bhutanese border.

The Doklam region has been a source of tensions and hostilities between India and China, with Bhutan caught amid the territorial dispute. The clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in the Doklam plateau, a region claimed by both China and Bhutan, raised significant concerns about regional stability.

Bhutan found itself at the centre of this geopolitical standoff, highlighting the complexities of the relationships between the three countries. Recently, satellite photos, reportedly showing a Chinese military presence on land claimed by Bhutan, have added another layer of complexity to the situation.

The dynamics of Bhutan’s diplomatic relationships, especially with neighbouring countries like China and India, have been a subject of interest and scrutiny. While Bhutan traditionally did not maintain strong formal diplomatic ties with China, recent developments, such as the Joint Cooperation Agreement signed in 2023 by former Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, have indicated a shift in the diplomatic landscape.

The agreement signed by Lotay Tshering outlined the responsibilities of a joint technical team and suggested a willingness to engage in cooperation with China. However, this move has been viewed by some as aligning more closely with China’s interests, potentially at the expense of Bhutan’s traditional ties with India.

With the recent election of the new Prime Minister Tobgay, there is anticipation of a different diplomatic approach. Tobgay is perceived as being pro-India, suggesting a potential realignment of Bhutan’s foreign policy priorities. The congratulatory message from the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, on platform X underscores the expectation of continued strong ties between Bhutan and India under the new leadership.