|Bhutan National Council Chambers|
Karma Tenzin, a reporter who covered much of the early stages of Bhutanese democracy, gave our group a presentation on the development and implementation of this new system. Following gradual movements towards democracy, the Constitution of Bhutan was ratified in 2008, with the country's first elections held shortly thereafter. These first campaigns were underscored with divisions within villages along political lines. There were only two political parties, and both penetrated the closely-knit family communities that make up the majority of Bhutan's voting population. The country is set for a second set of elections later this month; there will be four competing parties instead of two. Some officials are hopeful that the greater number of political parties will lessen the divides in the Bhutanese villages. Others are concerned that the intra-family divides will worsen, with some of the wounds from 2008 not yet healed.
One example of policy being influenced by public opinion was the Tobacco Control Act. The act outlawed tobacco possession in 2004, and was amended to include mandatory jail time for violators in 2010. The Bhutanese population opposed to the law went to social media, particularly Facebook, to voice their opinions against the policy. Soon, the Prime Minister and his deputies made Facebook accounts of their own, and an online debate on the policy began. It is remarkable that the country has embraced such modern mediums of discussion at this early stage of its voyage into a constitutional monarchy. In 2011, the penalties on the act were lessened, and the King pardoned all incarcerated under the law (except for a monk who, according to religious standards, should not have been in possession of tobacco regardless of Bhutanese law). The response to this law showed that the Bhutanese citizens could unite to reform laws of the land, a critical element in any successful democracy.
How these events and how democracy in general will affect Bhutan in the long run is yet to be determined. Most of the Bhutanese population seems to be cautiously optimistic, and I believe most of us on this adventure share their sentiments.