Politics of Bhutan

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The Government of Bhutan has been a constitutional monarchy since 18 July 2008. Between 1907 and the 1950s, however, Bhutan was an absolute monarchy. The peaceful march to democracy has been a steady one.[1] The King of Bhutan is head of state. Executive power is exercised by the Lhengye Zhungtshog, or council of ministers, headed by the Prime Minister. Legislative power is vested in the bicameral Parliament, both the upper National Council and the lower National Assembly. A royal edict issued on April 22, 2007 lifted the previous ban on political parties, ordering that they be created, in anticipation of National Assembly elections to be held the following year.[2] In 2008, Bhutan adopted its first modern Constitution, codifying the institutions of government and the legal framework for a democratic multi-party system.


The Bhutanese people have historically never had doubts about their nation's sovereignty. Bhutan in fact has never been colonized. However, to the outside world, namely India and before that the British Raj, Bhutan was viewed as less than sovereign for their own geopolitical interests. Bhutan was treated as a suzerainty by the British Raj, during which time the present monarchy was established. Foreign and defence policy was to be decided by the British according to the 1910 Treaty of Punakha. This did not mean so much to the Bhutanese, however, due to their policy of self-imposed isolation. In 1949, after Indian independence, Bhutan and India agreed to a ten-article, perpetual treaty which effectively continued the relationship, but with India taking the place of the United Kingdom. That is, India agreed not to interfere in Bhutan's internal relations, while Bhutan agreed "to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations" (Article 2). The treaty also established free trade and full extradition between the two countries.[3]

While Bhutan sees its destiny as being closely linked with that of India, for which reason it strives to promote excellent relations with it, it has also quietly striven to assert its sovereignty at the same time.

Article 2 of the 1949 treaty has mostly been ignored by both countries as Bhutan confidently handles all of its foreign affairs, including the sensitive border demarcation talks with China.

In February 2007, the Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty was substantially revised with all references to phrases such as "will be guided" deleted, thus eliminating the last lingering doubts about the sovereign and independent status of Bhutan.[4]

Branches of government

Further information: Constitution of Bhutan

The Constitution of Bhutan provides for a government consisting of three main branches – executive, legislative, and judicial – plus the officially apolitical Dratshang Lhentshog (Monastic Affairs Commission) of the Drukpa Kagyu state religion. The secular and religious branches of government are unified in the person of the Druk Gyalpo (King of Bhutan).[5]

The trichotomy of secular government is not absolute. There are many independent commissions, agencies, and institutions that operate outside this general framework, such as the Royal Monetary Authority and Election Commission. There are also agencies whose members are drawn from more than one branch of government, such as the Judicial Commission. In addition, there are several ministries within the cabinet executive branch, such as the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs, which in turn delegate powers to subsidiary departments according to legislation by the legislative branch.[5] The legislative branch itself oversees devolved local governments.[6]

Executive branch

Main office holders
Office Name Party Since
King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck 15 December 2006
Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay People's Democratic Party 30 July 2013

Bhutan's head of state is the Druk Gyalpo ("Dragon King"). Although his title is hereditary, he must retire by age 65, and he can be removed by a two-thirds majority vote by the parliament followed by a national referendum, which must pass by a simple majority in all twenty districts of the country.[5] Prior to 2008, a similar abdication process existed under which the unicameral National Assembly, or Tshogdu could force the king to abdicate.

The Je Khenpo is the highest religious official of Bhutan and head of the Dratshang Lhentshog (Monastic Affairs Commission).[5] He is typically viewed as the closest and most powerful advisor to the King of Bhutan. The 70th and present Je Khenpo is Jigme Chhoeda.

Bhutan's head of government is its Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is nominated by the party that wins the most seats in the National Assembly and heads the executive cabinet, called the Lhengye Zhungtshog (Council of Ministers).

In 1998, the monarch's executive powers were transferred to the Council of Ministers, or Lhengye Zhungtshog (cabinet). At the time, candidates for the Council of Ministers were elected by the National Assembly for a fixed five-year term and had to be a part of the legislative assembly. The cabinet was headed by the Prime Minister, who was the head of government. The post of Prime Minister rotated each year between the five candidates who secured the highest number of votes. The 2005 draft Constitution of Bhutan included provision for a two-party democratic system that was unveiled after four years of preparation.[7] Previously, the candidates to the cabinet Council of Ministers (Lhengye Zhungtshog) were nominated by the monarch, elected by the National Assembly. The members served fixed, five-year terms. There was also a Royal Advisory Council (Lodoi Tsokde), members nominated by the monarch.

Legislative branch

Ugyen Wangchuk with his councilors at Punakha, Bhutan (1905)

Bhutan elects its legislative branch through universal suffrage under the Constitution of 2008. The Bhutanese parliament is bicameral, consisting of a National Council (upper house) and a National Assembly (lower house).

Prior to 2008, the legislative branch was the unicameral Tshogdu. The Tshogdu had 150 members, 106 members elected at various dates for a three-year term in single-seat constituencies, 34 appointed members and 10 representatives of the monastic body. Suffrage in Bhutan at that time was unique in that each family unit, rather than individual, had one vote.

Political parties and elections

 Summary of the 24 March 2008 Bhutanese National Assembly election results
Parties Votes % Seats
Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party 169,490 67.04 45
People's Democratic Party 83,522 32.96 2
Total votes (turnout 79.4%) 253,012 100.00 47
Source: election-bhutan.org

In Bhutan, political parties, elections, and referenda are overseen by the Election Commission, an independent government regulatory agency.[5][8]

Candidates for most elections and appointments in Bhutan must be non-partisan; however, political parties may slate candidates for seats in the National Assembly. The party that wins the most seats nominates the Prime Minister.[5] The first Prime Minister, Jigme Thinley, was a member of the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party. The current Prime Minister, Tshering Tobgay, heads the People's Democratic Party.

Political pressure groups include the Buddhist clergy; ethnic Nepalese organizations leading militant anti-government campaign; Indian merchant community and the exiled United Front for Democracy.

Judicial branch

Bhutan's legal system is based on codes established by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 17th century and influenced by Anglo-Indian common law. Under the Constitution of 2008, the Judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court, the High Court, and twenty Dzongkhag Courts. For thirteen dungkhag jurisdictions in six Dzongkhags, Dungkhag Courts are the courts of first instance. In all jurisdictions outside dungkhags, the Dzongkhag Courts are the civil and criminal courts of first instance. The High Court is the first court of appeal, and the Supreme Court is the court of final appeal. The Supreme Court also has original jurisdiction over Constitutional questions and matters of national importance referred by the King. Judges of the Supreme and High courts are appointed by the King.[5]

Before 2008 in the Bhutanese judicial system, the monarch was the final court of appeal (the "Supreme Court of Appeal"), and local government officials adjudicated minor crimes.[9] The Royal High Court of Bhutan was the highest court in the country and had original jurisdiction over the twenty districts of the nation. Judicial appointments were made by the monarch, and could be recalled by him at any time.

Main article: Law of Bhutan

The criminal justice system is based on trial before a panel of judges, and therefore resembles more the Napoleonic than the British or American adversarial systems. The prosecutor, a government employee, seeks to obtain an acknowledgement of culpability from the accused. If this happens quickly, the sentencing may be lenient. If culpability is obvious but the accused refuses to admit to it, the sentence may be correspondingly severe. Judges may dismiss the case for lack of proof at any time. Recent legislation defines required proof of guilt more closely, providing increased protection against trivial or mistaken charges. Minor criminal offences may be tried by the dzongkhag Drangpon (District Judge).

Bhutan has not accepted compulsory International Court of Justice jurisdiction.

Administrative divisions

Main article: Districts of Bhutan

Bhutan is divided in 20 districts (dzongkhag, singular and plural); Bumthang, Chukha, Dagana, Gasa, Ha, Lhuntse, Mongar, Paro, Pemagatshel, Punakha, Samdrup Jongkhar, Samtse, Sarpang, Thimphu, Trashirang, Trashiyangtse, Trongsa, Tsirang, Wangdue Phodrang, and Zhemgang.

International organization participation


Preserving traditional culture

Further information: Culture of Bhutan, Driglam namzha, and Lhotshampa

The codification of Bhutanese culture traces its roots directly back to Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the Tibetan lama and military leader who unified Bhutan as a nation state in the 17th century. The Zhabdrung sought to unify the country not only politically but culturally as well. He established the Driglam Namzha, guidelines for architecture, festivals, and public dress and behavior. These guidelines were intentionally codified to encourage the emergence of a distinctive Bhutanese identity.

During the six 5-year plans for Bhutan's planned developing starting from the 1960s, authorities seemed to take the survival for Bhutan's tradition and culture for granted. During that period of rapid development a significant part of Bhutan's population, principally the youth, were exposed overnight to outside ideas, cultures, and influences. This period also saw a marked increase in immigrants from Nepal and India, most of whom settled in the south among the Lhotshampa.

By the 1980s, the government felt it necessary to safeguard the dominant Ngalop culture. In 1989 the government elevated the status of the Driglam Namzha dress code from recommended to mandatory. Afterward, all citizens were required to observe the dress code (the gho and kira) in public during business hours. This decree was resented by the Hindu Lhotshampa in the southern lowlands who voiced complaints about being forced to wear the clothing of the Ngalop.[10][11] This was accompanied by regulations restricting employment and educational opportunities for residents who were not of full Bhutanese descent. However, the government finds it difficult to relent because it perceives a threat to tradition demographically and culturally. As a result of ethnic tensions, there were an estimated 107,000[12] refugees and asylum seekers, mostly Lhotshampa, in refugee camps in Nepal in 2008. By January 2010, an estimated 90,078[13] remained persons of concern.

About the causes and the course of the tension that prevailed in Bhutan since the year 1989, writes historian Sailen Debnath, "Not only in Samchi and Chirang District of Bhutan the Nepalese constituted the majority of the population, rather they grabbed a formidable percentage of Government services. At the sight of the alarming majority of the Nepalese in the Government offices except the posts of Lyonpos (ministers) and Dashos (deputy ministers and district magistrates), King Jigme Singhe Wangchuk and the members of the Tsogdu (Bhutanese National Assembly) considered the Gorkhaland movement too dangerous a signal for the Drukpas of Bhutan, and, therefore, took the decision of throwing the unwanted Nepali population out of Bhutan through the applications of different means. They became afraid right from the year 1989 of the inevitable consequences of the growing Nepali population in Bhutan and there was no difficulty in their realization that unless the influx of Nepali immigrants into Bhutan would have been stopped, Bhutan one day would certainly become another Darjeeling or Sikkim and the Drukpa Bhutanese would then become not only second class citizens rather unwanted in their own country. King Jigme Singhe Wangchuk toured all nooks and corners of Bhutan and delivered speeches to the Bhutanese students of different schools and Tserubse College on the indispensable necessity of national unity of Bhutan on the basis of Buddhist cultural heritage, social unity as well as Bhutanese national legacy of sovereignty.".[14] As to the anxiety of the Bhutanese people and of the King of Bhutan, Sailen Debnath further adds, "The British Government encouraged the Nepalese to settle in the down-hills of Bhutan and King Jigme Wangchuk wanted to stop it. In 1950s, King Jigme Dorje Wangchuk adopted an undeclared policy to convert the Hindu Nepalese to Buddhism but failed. In 1989 King Jigme Singhe Wangchuk introduced “Di-lam-Namcha “ or national etiquette and national language policy by asking the Nepalese willing to stay in Bhutan to take to Dzongkha or Bhutanese national language. After a census at that time, King Jigme Singhe Wangchuk accused India in the language, “the total population of my country is only 6 lakhs, but in the U.N. record it is 1.2 million. Some Indian officers advised my father to show a much higher number in order to prove Bhutan per capita income wise a very poor country for the purpose of getting more U.N. aid”. The king wanted to mean that such a misstatement of total number of population should provide no excuse to the Nepali intruders into Bhutan with the claim that they had not intruded and population did not increase. Population increase was shown in paper as expediency; but the Royal Government took stringent measures in throwing out the non-citizen Nepalese from Bhutan. It has to be noted here that as nearly one lakh Nepalese were ousted from Bhutan and as refugees all of them did not return to Nepal, thousands of them settled along with their kinsmen in the Dooars and the Darjeeling hills leading to a destabilization in the set of language-wise population ratio in the area, and this has proved itself to be another cause of tension in North Bengal.[15]

See also


  1. Kaul, Nitasha (2008-03-27). "Bhutan is Neither Authoritarian Nor Stuck in a Time Warp". The Guardian Online. Retrieved 2009-07-20.
  2. Sengupta, Somini (2007-04-24). "Line Up and Pick a Dragon: Bhutan Learns to Vote". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-04-24.
  3. Eur (2002). "Indo-Bhutan Treaty". Regional Studies of the World: Far East and Australasia 2003 (34th ed.). Psychology Press. p. 201. ISBN 1-85743-133-2.
  4. Amrit Baruah (2007-03-07). "Bhutan no longer to be guided by India on foreign affairs". AFPA News online. The Hindu. Retrieved 2011-03-16.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 "The Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan" (PDF). Government of Bhutan. 2008-07-18. Retrieved 2011-03-02.
  6. "Local Government Act of Bhutan 2009" (PDF). Government of Bhutan. 2009-09-11. Retrieved 2011-01-20.
  7. "Constitution of Bhutan (draft)" (PDF). Government of Bhutan. 2005. Retrieved 2011-03-16.
  8. "Election Act of the Kingdom of Bhutan 2008" (PDF). Government of Bhutan. 2008-07-28. Retrieved 2011-01-30.
  9.  This article incorporates public domain material from the Library of Congress document: Robert L. Worden (September 1991). Andrea Matles Savada, ed. "Bhutan: A country study". Federal Research Division. Legal System.
  10. "Country profile – Bhutan: a land frozen in time". BBC News online. 1998-02-09. Retrieved 2010-10-01.
  11. "Bhutan country profile". BBC News online. 2010-05-05. Retrieved 2010-10-01.
  12. "First of 60,000 refugees from Bhutan arrive in U.S". CNN. 2008-03-25.
  13. "UNHCR – Bhutan". UNHCR online. 2010-01-01. Retrieved 2010-12-01.
  14. Sailen Debnath, Edited: Social and Political Tensions in North Bengal Since 1947, Chapter- Introduction, ISBN 9788186860441
  15. Sailen Debnath, Edited: Social and Political Tensions in North Bengal since 1947, Chapter- Introduction, ISBN 9788186860441
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