It’s often argued that democracies run on a supply and demand system; demand being civil society, and according to Michael Fowler, supply being “aggregated into four categories of rational choice institutions: the military, NGOs, political parties, and the ruling regime“. The word democracy is used in a vague vernacular but it means the people hold the power, however democracies are not created equal. The idea behind the people holding the power is good, but with there being no criteria behind it, countries start to erode their own system. One country being the Kingdom of Bhutan. Bhutan is a country in South Asia on the edge of the Himalayan mountains. With a little over 800 thousand people, they are a constitutional monarchy but with a parliamentary form of government. Their ancestry lays with Buddhist monks, They have a king, who reigns ‘little political power’, that rules with a parliament, with whom represents the people. With a century-old monarchy, in 2008 Bhutan had their first democratic elections. Before the erosion stated, the government looked good because it wasn’t the people that pushed for a democracy, it was the former king. The people were apprehensive towards the idea, as a monarchy was all they had ever known; it’s “a paradoxical way where, without any elite or popular pressure, monarchical powers are directed towards enabling democratization” (Turner). Their Prime Minister, Lotay Tshering, was elected by the people in 2018, making him the third prime minister to head Bhutan.
As the Bhutanese government wanted a quality election process, they held a mock election the year before they would enact it. In the ‘practice run’, they had the voters choose from imaginary candidates that were assigned by a color. The first round the people would vote, and the top two candidates would make it to the second round. The people then got to make their final vote on the run-off election round. “Not only voter turnout was successfully achieved with around 80 %, but also the monitoring of the elections by the international community was positive with regard to the conduct of the elections.” (Wolf page 7).
March of 2020 marked 12 years of Bhutan’s transition into a democracy. They have had a consistent downfall with no specific start date. People started to question to the question “the people’s power” when the King, Jigme, is still the biggest stakeholder of the country. He has the power to veto any political nomination for a seat in any of the three branches. He has control over any policy formulation, meaning that he monitors and implements as he pleases. This aligns with a complete monarchy, nowhere in there was the people’s interest. That was the first sign of democratic erosion. The second noted situation is when the King had an informal mechanism to influence. According to Wolf, “his dominant location in a hierarchy enabled the application of vertical authority over his subordinates”. Meaning that he sat at the apex of political power and used his resources to legitimatize his position. Bhutan is going through the challenge of modernization and the King is using that situation to persuade his control within the democracy. There were no international factors that contributed, mainly because their democracy is only 12 years old. The decline has been present for the past 10 years.
Timeline and International Context
There is no specific timeline of the democratic erosion, as it was a slow process. If we look at the static, long-term features of the society, it shows us that the ethnic heterogeneity and lack of economic freedom contributed. The 2020 Index on Bhutan’s Economic Freedom showed that in the last five years, they have scored a 62.1 at their highest. Meaning that within their democracy they allow their people to do what they may, but a little under half the time the government makes the decision for them. There aren’t many local institutions that are facilitated in Bhutan and their media has been proven credible. They have three branches of government that are equal in power so those aren’t factors in the decline either.
At the same time, 2008, they decided to have their first democratic election, other countries were going through major economic crises. The United States was going through the recession and millions of people were losing their jobs. It’s easy to say that they were not paying much attention to Bhutan’s election and the accuracy and fairness of it. Countries that border them like China, who is a communist country, didn’t focus much on it either because their relationship wasn’t going to change. Bhutan does most of their importing and exporting with China and by them becoming a democracy, wasn’t going to change their agreements. I think North America and Europe were big influences onto why democracy was pushed. Both continents have been extremely successful and I think Bhutan wanted that.
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