Saturday, 21 January 2012

Bhutan - What lies beneath…

The way the Parliament resolved the much debated election amendment bill on January 19 was significant in the sense the speaker, for the first time, used his sole authority to decide how to go about with a bill.

Also for the first time, the joint committee who studied the disputed portions to draw recommendations for the Parliament to vote on could not come up with one.

Deprived of recommendations, the speaker decided to do without voting and announced the original election Act stand, meant the state funding for political parties, proposed in the bill, flopped.

But was the speaker’s decision, many asked, to withhold the voting process and revert to the former Act the only option the Parliament was left with?

When the session took off, assembly’s legislative committee chairperson, Ugyen Wangdi, who introduced the bill in the 6th session, suggested on withdrawing it.

But this option was shot down when the speaker clarified that this could be done only in individual houses of the Parliament and not in a joint session.

Without any recommendation, an alternative the joint committee comprising members from both assembly and council had considered the night before the joint sitting, was to vote on the draft bill.

In it featured the proposal to fund state funding for opposition and ruling parties with government deciding the amount in consultation with election commission.

But this did not happen and rather, the legislative chairperson proposed withdrawing the bill.

While one could only guess what led to the change in course, after clamouring so much for state funding, it is even more intriguing to learn why voting was not opted. It’s not like there wasn’t enough support.

Of the 69 members present that day, 46 “yes” votes was all that was required to pass the bill by a two-third majority.

Excluding the speaker and the foreign minister, there were 43 DPT members who were all ayes for state funding. Of the two opposition members, going by the past deliberations, at least one would have voted in for state funding.

That garnered 44 “yes” votes. Of the 25 council members, at least two had already made known their interest to support state funding. That took the vote to 46, meaning the required majority was achieved.

Even if the gathering was short of a vote to attain the two-third majority, considering both the opposition members voted “no”, the legislative rules of procedure allowed the speaker to cast the deciding vote.

That way, the passage of bill was possible.

Even otherwise, the bill was fated to die. In the course of deliberation, assembly members, including the prime minister, divulged on their position to have state funding for not just the ruling and the opposition parties, but for others as well.

Since the amendment bill assembly members proposed did not have that, the formula to come out with an inclusive bill in future was to let the current bill die. That required assembly members to vote against their own bill.

Declaring a bill “dead” invited much criticism in some countries since it was seen as Parliament’s inability to do its job. But chances of this happening was rare as the bills, unlike in Bhutan, could be tossed between the two houses countless times. What was even more rare was the frequent joint sitting of the houses.

Here, the law mandated the houses to sit together and decide on the bill once it was deliberated in the two houses and differences prevailed.

State funding, for one, saw endless debates in the two houses over more than three years.

The issue drew media’s attention when council members, in the first session, highlighted its unconstitutionality as finance minister presented to the house the 2008-09 budget and appropriation bill.

In the same session, council submitted to the assembly the discrepancies they detected.

Interestingly, in the assembly, following a detailed deliberation, members deemed it unconstitutional and resolved “that the political parties would not be provided with state funding”.

The issue resurfaced in the third session when the prime minister, in his first annual report on the state of the nation, highlighted on political parties “struggling to stay afloat”.

“Our parties need financial support and that is not available from our people who are few in number and short in cash,” the report stated.

In the 6th session, the assembly put up the election Act for amendment and inserted a clause on state funding. After exhaustively deliberating on it, with one member after another speaking in its favour, the bill was endorsed with 36 “yes” and two “no” votes.

In the 7th session, the council rejected the amendments and reached the joint session this year.

Meanwhile, the logic to return with more inclusive bill in future is welcomed by many, especially those with intentions to form new political parties and deem state support important.

A write-up offering options to fund political parties, circulated among Parliament members before the January 6 joint sitting, states: “provision of equal fund to all the registered political parties becomes baseless or unconstitutional when they do not have any representation in the Parliament”.

Alternatives like offering slightly higher amount to the ruling and opposition compared to other political parties was also laid down on the paper.

Considering elements such as these, perhaps the speaker’s decision to neatly wrap up the matter this time was the safest.

It provides a good opportunity for members of both houses to take a step back, re-look the issue and return with fresh perspectives.

By Kesang Dema

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