The Bhutan elections: Navigating economic challenges and national happiness

Bhutan, known for prioritizing “Gross National Happiness” over economic growth, held general elections amid economic challenges. The new government aims to reduce dependence on Indian subsidies while preserving its happiness-centered philosophy.

Bhutan is currently undergoing general elections amidst serious economic challenges. In a nation that has long prioritized “Gross National Happiness” over economic growth, the two competing parties are grappling with the complex task of finding a balance between economic development and the well-being of the people.

Bhutan’s unique approach to governance is rooted in the philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH). Both parties contesting the elections are committed to this philosophy, which prioritizes the happiness and well-being of the people over mere economic growth. GNH encompasses various aspects of life, including psychological well-being, health, education, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation. It aims to create a harmonious and sustainable society, where material progress is not pursued at the expense of holistic development.

Despite its focus on happiness, Bhutan is grappling with several economic challenges that require immediate attention. One of the most pressing issues is the high rate of youth unemployment, which stands at 29 per cent according to the World Bank. This alarming figure has led to a mass exodus of Bhutan’s younger generation in search of better financial and educational opportunities abroad. The brain drain poses a significant threat to the country’s future development and calls for urgent intervention.

Bhutan’s younger generation faces numerous obstacles in their quest for a brighter future. Chronic youth unemployment and limited local opportunities have forced many to seek greener pastures elsewhere. Australia has emerged as the top destination for Bhutanese youth, with a record number of visas issued in recent years. The allure of better job prospects and educational opportunities abroad has led to a significant drain of talent from Bhutan. This mass exodus necessitates concrete measures to retain and harness the potential of the country’s youth.

As Bhutan heads to the polls, the two main parties, the Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), have outlined their priorities for addressing the economic challenges. Pema Chewang, the leader of BTP, emphasizes the need to tackle the brain drain issue and prevent the loss of the “cream of the nation.” Meanwhile, Tshering Tobgay, the former prime minister and leader of PDP, highlights the unprecedented economic challenges and the struggle of Bhutanese people to meet their basic needs for food and other necessities.

Tourism plays a crucial role in Bhutan’s economy, contributing to foreign currency earnings. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the tourism sector, leaving it in a state of uncertainty. The next government must focus on reviving and diversifying the tourism industry to enhance economic resilience. Furthermore, both parties have pledged to invest heavily in hydropower, which serves as Bhutan’s primary source of energy. This investment aims to boost economic growth and reduce reliance on external energy sources.

Bhutan’s political landscape underwent significant changes in 2008 with the introduction of political reforms and the establishment of a bicameral parliament. The current reigning king, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, has been instrumental in initiating these reforms, making him immensely popular among the Bhutanese people. The campaigns leading up to the elections have been relatively subdued, adhering to strict rules that govern the display of election materials. Despite the subdued nature of the campaigns, the elections hold great significance for the future of Bhutan.

Situated between two of the world’s most populous countries, China and India, Bhutan’s elections draw attention from its neighbours. The strategic border zones, contested by both China and India, add a layer of complexity to Bhutan’s political landscape. The election results will likely have implications for Bhutan’s relationships with its neighbouring countries and the geopolitical dynamics of the region.

As Bhutan navigates its economic challenges while upholding the principles of Gross National Happiness, the outcome of the general elections holds the key to shaping the country’s future. The next government must prioritize addressing youth unemployment, retaining talent, reviving the tourism sector, and diversifying the economy. Striking a delicate balance between economic growth and the well-being of the people is crucial for Bhutan’s sustained development and the realization of its unique vision of Gross National Happiness.