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Democratic debate or squabbling?
Siok Sian Pek-­Dorji, June 30, 2013
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 As we count down to the general election, tensions are mounting and news headlines are getting more frenetic with political parties blaming each other for all sorts of unfair thoughts, words and deeds.

“Ama, the parties are accusing each other of so many things; is it true?” asked my 12-year-old daughter who was reading the headlines as we drove to school one morning. She sounded a little surprised and thoroughly confused. And the fact is that she is not the only confused Bhutanese citizen today.

Bhutanese news has been reflecting the tensions of political conflict in a small society. The language, name-calling, accusations have been growing increasingly harsh and jarring to observers in a society where public confrontation has been rare. Analysts will recall that public harmony was one of the strengths that Bhutan has always boasted about.

Nasty comments draw immediate responses, resulting in unpleasant exchanges that inevitably involve entire families and communities. A growing concern is that, if differences in opinion are personalized, such a trend may eventually split the society in the absence of a more mature debating culture."

Are we falling prey to the stereotypical negativities of fledgling democracies where parties end up just opposing each other in the absence of ideologies? A downside of evolving party politics is that it could so easily spiral downwards into adversity.

Bhutanese democracy is a vision of the fourth King His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck who also offered the world the concept of GNH – a vision which recognizes that interdependence of society is important for human happiness.

Such a transition, from a Monarchy to a vibrant democracy, would require more professional debate in the halls of parliament. We can expect a clash of ideas, not just words, and welcome a diversity of views that will help build a healthy society.

As Bhutan elects a second government and moves into a new phase, is it possible to grow above adversarial communications and rise above the reflexive tendency to hit back through verbal slings? How did we move from a society with a rich tradition of respect for human sensitivities to one where we’re calling each other names and alleging malpractices at every exchange?

Can we consciously try to start a conversation that will help us establish a GNH-­inspired system of governance based on the age-old values of tolerance and compassion and interdependence. Can we create this conversation of hope and inspiration rather than perpetuate a cycle of fear and cynicism that limits our progress as a democratic society?

How can we – discuss and disagree, as citizens and leaders, as the press and civil society, with grace and humility and empathy? Democracy, a strategy to achieve the GNH pillar of good governance, is a way to enhance our happiness and this begins with the way we talk to one another.

Words themselves can be powerful. They can help shape the way we see and understand democracy. They can also be used as a chain of clichés that reduce democracy to a mere facade. We know our aspiring leaders are under stress and harsh words slip out particularly at times like these. But can we, the on-lookers and citizens, also find ways to understand the debates so far with the realisation that we are all in this together? In the remaining days of campaigns and debates, can we be more aware of our words and their impact on each other, on our families and communities, and on the populace at large?

Not to forget the 12-­year olds who are also watching trends in our society and forming opinions that will shape the future of our nation.

By Siok Sian Pek-­Dorji

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