As the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) prepares to hold the third thromdes elections on 28 April, the recent Covid-19 community spread in Phuentsholing Thromde has placed a profound strain on the entire election process.
Amid rising local Covid-19 cases in Phuentsholing, the Election Commission is fully prepared to go ahead with the elections with all required equipment, SOPs and Covid-19 health safety measures put in place.
In an email response, the ECB’s head of civic and electoral training department, Phub Dorji, said that the commission has developed and put in place two strategies – for conducting elections in a pandemic situation and in the event of a lockdown.
Following the announcement of the latest lockdown in Phuentsholing and confirmation of local transmission, he said, after prolonged deliberations, it was unanimously concluded that a postal ballot system would be the most suitable voting option for Phuentsholing Thromde in the current lockdown scenario given its small and easily manageable number of voters.
Phub Dorji underscored that the choice of a postal ballot for Phuentsholing Thromde elections has been taken to mitigate the risks associated with Covid-19.
He said that all voters of Phuentsholing have been contacted over the phone and their whereabouts established. “Starting 24 April, postal ballots are being delivered at the doorsteps of voters to facilitate safe and secure voting,” he said, adding the postal ballots are being collected in secure ballot boxes.
For Phuentsholing voters who are residing out of their thromde, he said, the ECB has provided a conventional postal ballot, both within and outside the country.
To comprehensively address concerns associated with the pandemic, all officials involved have been trained by experienced health professionals and are being thoroughly briefed for ensuring strict compliance with Covid-19 health safety protocol.
He reiterated that for the ECB, the health and wellbeing of the citizens are its top priority. “We will be closely monitoring the situation and taking decisions in the larger interest of the nation, and as and when deemed necessary,” he said.
To enhance the state of preparedness, the ECB conducted simulation exercises and trained the key officials who are involved in the current thromde elections. “The simulation exercise was also video-recorded and reviewed to better understand and address the concerns and challenges,” he said.
The ECB has also developed a comprehensive strategy for holding elections in a lockdown situation since the second lockdown in December 2020.
“In addition to the simulation exercise and training that we have imparted to our officials, health professionals in Phuentsholing have also provided a day-long training to the postal ballot teams in Phuentsholing on critical health safety measures to be complied with,” he said.
He also said that thromde tshogde is an institution that provides services to the thromde residents. “We believe instituting thromde tshogde on time will also further strengthen public health protection and also delivery of critical services during such trying times,” said Phub Dorji.
Given the risk factor at the moment in Phuentsholing, he said, the commission has allowed the contestants to carry out their campaigns via social media with prior approval from the ECB. “They have also been given opportunities by BBS to campaign on national TV,” he added.
However, he also said most of the electoral processes have been completed, including the common forum and public debate. “The door-to-door campaigns were also well on course before the current lockdown in Phuentsholing was announced,” he said.
Initially, the commission decided to conduct the elections based on the zone experience acquired during the earlier lockdowns by facilitating the regulated movement of voters to the polling stations, based on the time given in their zone movement cards.
The experiences of some countries holding elections during a pandemic offer the lessons of suffering from a low voter turnout. The biggest concerns could be facing similar challenges with the pandemic-related restrictions in place.
But Phub Dorji said that the ECB has been preparing these strategies since December 2020, when the second lockdown happened. “We contacted almost all registered voters of these three Thromdes over the phone and have been continuously preparing, based on the information gathered,” he said.
He said that the voter turnout is expected to be much better than in the past years since there are four candidates in Phuentsholing Thromde. “Besides, this time ballots will be delivered to the door-steps of the voters and it is expected to increase their enthusiasm and encourage them to vote,” he said.
“In addition to a number of video clips aimed at generating awareness of the thromde elections, numerous talk shows on BBS TV and radio have been done during the past one month to encourage voter participation and turn out,” he said.
To facilitate inclusive participation, voters above 65 years of age and those with disabilities in Gelegphu and Thimphu are being facilitated with a mobile polling booth from 23 April. “With all these initiatives in place, we are hopeful that voter turnout should be respectable,” said Phub Dorji.
Meanwhile, the ECB urges concerned dzongdags, in their capacity as Chief Election Coordinators, to encourage the voters to participate in the electoral process.