The history of democracy in Bhutan
“I am fundamentally against monarchy,” Frank Aaen informed the fourth King during an audience in Thimphu in 1998. “To my surprise, and to the great surprise of all of the other members of the delegation, the King answered that he agreed.” The duo sat down for a few hours and discussed democracy in Bhutan.
During the audience, Mr Aaen was astounded to hear the monarch say: “The people should be more involved in the running of the country.”
After the audience, the anti-monarchist said that although the King of Bhutan was an absolute monarch, he did not act like one; he had modern ideas, was comfortable with democratic notions and was the proponent of change.
For the audience, Mr Aaen wore jeans and a T-Shirt. In a recent interview, he said that he always wears blue jeans to demonstrate his anti-monarchy sentiments. He was part of the Danish parliamentary delegation that had come to see some of the projects that their government had sponsored.
Mr Aaen believes that the institution of monarchy is old fashioned and no longer relevant in the modern political set-up. His political position is that, in a democracy, everyone is equal under the law, and monarchy does not fit in with this ideology. In Copenhagen, Mr Aaen is known for his efforts to abolish the status of the monarchy.
Like the Danish anti-monarchist, many people around the world consider monarchy old-fashioned and no longer relevant in the modern society. Monarchy is considered quaint and the word synonymous with ‘medieval,’ and at best, is considered positively evil.
One major problem with monarchy is quality; if you have a bad king, how do you get rid of him? Since the king cannot be dismissed by vote, revolution is the only way out. For this reason, monarchy is not a preferred form of government in the 21st century.
The fourth King of Bhutan himself did not trust monarchy as a form of government. The King believed that the fate of the country should not lie in the hands of one person. He would often remind us, the Bhutanese people; “A king is born and does not become one by merit.” The King always told us that Bhutan would be fine as long as she had a good king but the question is, what if she had a bad one.
Yes! History has produced many average monarchs and this brings us to the question, “What about the good Kings?”
The concept of the enlightened monarch exists in the Buddhist tradition. This is a distinguishable trait of the Eastern mind where succession to the throne is a sign of inherited royalty being the embodiment of spiritual tradition. For example, Mr Aaen was surprised when the King showed no sign of being offended by him wearing his jeans, but instead expressed his agreement with the statements about monarchy. This was further proof of an enlightened being.
Introduction of Democracy
Those not familiar with the history of Bhutan assume that democracy was introduced overnight. But not so. The King did not get up one day and suddenly decide to introduce democracy.
In the 20 years as King, the third King (1952-1972), laid the foundation of democracy and the fourth King built on it. For example, the third King introduced the system of voting: at that time, each household had one vote. This was the first time the people were being consulted on governance and first instance of interactive rule.
Later, the fourth King (r.1972-2006) changed this to one vote per person above the age of 18. The local leaders were involved in the process that helped the people become accustomed to the idea of voting and making a choice.
In 1998, for the first time in 26 years, the fourth King dissolved his cabinet. Until then, King had always appointed the ministers.
The King nominated six ministers for six seats. Then the Assembly was made to vote for or against. Although all of the ministers were voted in, this was the first time the people had to make a choice and vote for or against the King’s nomination.
By the second round, the cabinet had expanded to 10 ministers. This time, the King nominated seven ministers for the four new seats. The Assembly members had to make a choice. This was not done. How could they go against the King’s nomination?
This was the first instance where people had to make a choice, which is an integral part of democracy.
Finally in 2006, the King dropped the bomb. He announced his abdication from the throne in favour of his 26-year-old son, paving the way for parliamentary democracy. That year, the Bhutanese went to the polls for the first time and elected the first people’s government.
The King introduced democracy at a time of peace and stability. When we look around, we see that is not the case. Many new governments are formed as a result of fighting and rebellion. The seeds of democracy are often planted in bad soil.
But Bhutan’s story is different – the soil was fertile, well tilled, watered, fertilized for a long time before the seed of democracy was planted. Twenty years of mindful planning created the best conditions and the healthiest seeds.
The seeds were planted cleverly avoiding a simplified political view of two parties or sides that would battle each other. Both wisdom and patience was exercised in order to ensure that the process would be based on the culture and knowledge of the people.
Even though we were surprised, we had actually been warned. Fourteen years before the King met Mr Aaen, the King was already talking about democracy. In 1984, in Thimphu, the King, who was only 26 years old, shared his vision with a delegation of the United Nations.
The U.N made an observation, “Bhutan is very democratic; the King of Bhutan is pushing democratization. Most developing countries are clever at toppling governments without achieving democracy.”
“Lot of political reforms has been introduced to ensure that Bhutan’s fate does not lie in the hands of one individual. The power devolution and the constitution are political reforms to ensure that the irrespective of the caliber of the King the Bhutanese will enjoy peace and prosperity.”
In hindsight, all these events were leading towards parliamentary constitutional monarchy and are testimony that the transition to democracy was a gradual process involving the people at each stage.
The decisions made by the King were not based on representing any partisan interests, but rather a vision of the future of Bhutan and how a government of the people could be introduced.
Mr Aaen, who is still serving in the Danish parliament, said the King of Bhutan was an exceptional monarch and that he was surprised to find the King more modern than his own Queen.