All change in Shangri-la?

Ahead of Bhutan's parliamentary elections, Michael Hutt looks at the reality of the transition of th

The small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is currently engaged in an extremely interesting exercise. The aim of its ruling Buddhist elite is to take Bhutan a few steps down the road towards becoming a genuine participative democracy, but without unleashing forces that will loosen its own control of the country’s destiny.

This is a carefully calculated response to popular aspirations within Bhutan and to the expectations of Bhutan’s foreign friends and neighbours.

Until the 20th century, Bhutan was ruled jointly by a reincarnate lama and a secular administrator. The country underwent many years of internal conflict between the feudal lords of its various districts during the previous centuries. The establishment of the Wangchuck monarchy in 1907, which brought this conflict to an end, was in large part an outcome of the country’s encounter with the British colonial state.

Since then, the preservation of the sovereignty and distinct cultural identity of Bhutan has been an overriding concern, especially as independent India became more heavily involved in the country’s development and internal affairs. For much of the 20th century, the King held absolute power, supported and advised by a small handpicked political elite. A National Assembly, established in 1953, met for just a few weeks each year.

2008 will see the conclusion of a long and gradual process of political change. In 1998 the King appointed a Council of Ministers, and a prime minister began to represent the country in overseas fora. Bhutan’s first written constitution was drafted in 2004 and was taken out to every district for a long and carefully guided process of comment, discussion and consultation. The constitution provides for elections to a small upper house (part elected and part appointed by the King) and a 47-seat lower house, the National Assembly. Having stated earlier that he would abdicate when the elections were held in 2008, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck (the fourth Wangchuck king) abdicated in favour of his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel in December 2006.

Last year a mock election was conducted across the whole country, with the electorate casting its vote for either a ‘red’ party or a ‘yellow’ party. A peculiarity of the constitution is that while it allows for the establishment and registration of political parties for the very first time, and allows these parties to contest the first stage of its general elections, only the two most successful parties in this round can proceed to the next. The party that wins the higher number of votes then forms the government, while the runner-up forms the opposition. Thus, Bhutan is establishing a ‘two-party democracy’ rather than a multi-party democracy.

The first round of elections to the National Council was held during the first week of January; elections to the National Assembly are scheduled for March. Only two parties contested these first elections: the People's Democratic Party (PDP), headed by an uncle of the King, and the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) headed by a former chairman of the Council of Ministers. Bhutan’s Election Commission denied registration to a third party, the Bhutan People's United Party (BPUP), allegedly on the grounds that its candidates did not possess the necessary competence, experience or qualifications. This decision has given rise to some stridency even among bloggers on Bhutanese websites that are normally very strongly nationalistic and fiercely loyal to the establishment.

Bhutan’s population comprises three main ethnic groups, none of which constitutes a numerical majority. During the early 1990s, approximately one half of one of these groups — the ethnic Nepali population —either fled or was expelled to refugee camps in eastern Nepal in one of the world’s least known ethnic conflicts.

These 100,000 people are now very sorely divided over the question of whether to continue to wait to be repatriated (a prospect that remains extremely remote) or to accept offers of resettlement recently made by countries including the USA and Canada. There is evidence to suggest that many of the Nepalis who remain in Bhutan are denied many rights, including the citizenship documentation that would enable them to vote in Bhutan’s new electoral processes.

The unending exile of about one sixth of the population of Bhutan, combined with the denial of civil and political rights to their ethnic kin within the country, is beginning to give rise to a politics of violence that closely mirrors that witnessed in Nepal over the past decade.

The latest example of this was the detonation of bombs in four locations inside Bhutan on 20 January. In an email sent to regional newspapers and selected individuals, a group calling itself the United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan claimed responsibility for the blasts and declared ‘we have come to the conclusion that all the new changes which so much is being hyped is just cosmetic and in reality is not going to benefit all the Bhutanese except a small section’.

Journalists regularly describe Bhutan as a Shangri-la, and its government’s policy of striving for ‘Gross National Happiness’ is often quoted with approval. However, the political realities here are very starkly problematic. Charting the course for the future political development of a tiny multi-ethnic country lodged in high mountains between India and China must be one of the greater challenges of the 21st century.

Michael Hutt is Professor of Nepali and Himalayan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His recent publications include Unbecoming Citizens: Culture, Nationhood and the Flight of Refugees from Bhutan (Oxford University Press, 2003) and a translation of the Nepali novel Basain by Lil Bahadur Chettri, published as Mountains Painted with Turmeric (Columbia University Press, 2008).
Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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