ECB urges filing complaints against informal political campaigns

However, adequate evidence is needed to investigate the cases and take action against them

Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB)

LHAKPA TSHERING | Thimphu

The public can file complaints, but with clear evidence, against politicians and aspirants mounting their campaigns including subtly through social media platforms to sell their agenda outside the legally prescribed period.

While 2023 is still far, it was learned that some politicians and aspirants have intensified their political campaigns by attending social functions including cremations in various dzongkhags and constituencies, and other forms of illegal behaviors.

Election Commission of Bhutan’s (ECB) spokesperson Phub Dorji said while the commission did not receive any complaints against individuals engaging in early campaigns, he urged the public to file complaints. However, adequate evidence is needed to investigate the cases and take action against those alleged. 

He said that it is within the commission’s powers to regulate campaigns through notification to begin the election period. “Election-dos-and-don’ts are very clear in the act,” he said. “We have just finished the local government election, and it is too early to talk about upcoming national elections.”

Stressing on providing evidence in making a complaint, Phub Dorji said, otherwise the complainers can be counter-accused of defamation if the evidence is inadequate. “It is difficult to determine that the person is engaging in political behaviors,” he added.

While he agrees such illegal campaigns would be happening in the dark, he said that the final say is with the people. “After all, it depends on voters to elect the right candidate. For example, if the candidate is incompetent, the voters would not support even after being provided with familiarization tour,” he continued, adding that the voters know the candidate they want elected.

Some political observers say that politicians and aspirants including the sitting members’ central target are to influence the emotions of voters in the name of offering condolence to families of the victims.

On this front, the spokesperson said, while it is difficult to perceive their intentions, he believes this may be due to deeply rooted cultural systems in society. “We have to understand this in two different ways, not necessarily that individual is taking part in a campaign,” he added.

However, critics say such political behavior surged only after democracy and some even say that such emotional appeals are to influence voting behavior. 

“In the past, people used to attend social functions for only their families, relatives, and neighbors. Now it is rampant that politicians and aspirants make their presence – known or unknown – if such social functions are from their constituency and dzongkhag,” one said.

In addition, another claim some aspirants for the 2023 elections who are still working with the government agencies were often seen at the cremation ground. 

“A corporate employee often seen at the Thimphu cremation ground was introduced as a national council aspirant for 2023 by his colleague who has always been accompanying him,” one said, adding another political party candidate was also seen in every social function from his constituency.

Another potent form of the election campaign, people are concerned, is that some aspirants who are working civil servants or corporate employees make frequent official visits to their dzongkhags and constituencies intending to manipulate voters and thereby cause changes in political behavior.

Besides, it is also clear that some senior government officials harboring motives to join politics seek their transfer to their respective dzongkhags before their resignation at least to serve a few years, again with the motive to influence the voters.

As the law empowers the commission to conduct free and fair elections, critics say that such illegal and informal political campaigns would go beyond the control of authorities if they do not take a proactive approach to respond to the issues effectively.

To run a free and fair campaign, the commission also urges all political parties and aspirants to refrain from engaging in early campaigns ahead of the elections period.

“We have only four registered political parties in the country – two in the parliament house and two outside the house. Sometimes, we bring them together to discuss the issues when we get fundings support,” Phub Dorji added.

Meanwhile, the continuous exposure of looming malicious, false, misinformation and disinformation on various social media platforms including Facebook and WeChat remain the biggest challenge despite various measures in place to curb it.