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).
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times