We could have experienced a political crisis this week. The cabinet, led by the prime minister, fortunately went against its initial decision to resign en mass.
Speaking to the media on Tuesday, the prime minister, Lyonchen Jigmi Y. Thinley, confirmed speculations that the elected government was thinking of resigning. He went a step ahead to endorse that they had already taken the decision to resign at one stage.
But the government made a U-turn and decided to continue.
The episode has several reasons and ramifications. It cannot be seen only through the lens of the Supreme Court verdict.
The first question to ask is – what would make a government contemplate resignation?
Though it was the Supreme Court verdict that triggered it, the government has found its wings clipped and its functionality almost arrested on several occasions.
The government has never made its institutional problems public but it was for every one of us to see. It began the day the new government took office and, by virtue of being the first elected government, it took the responsibility of consolidating the new found democracy over its primary mandate of delivering economic development.
One of the first problems the elected government faced was to win the confidence of the civil servants, particularly senior bureaucrats. It was highlighted by a debate on protocol between the secretaries and the elected ministers. Civil servants didn’t trust the politicians enough.
The Election Commission’s rule that civil servants should be apolitical became a pretext for senior civil servants to wage a cryptic war against the elected leaders. While the position of a government secretary was juxtaposed to a minister at the center, the MPs had their share of trouble with the dzongdas at the district level.
At every step, the biggest challenge for the elected government was to assert its rightful authority. It was also necessary because the same responsibility was akin to its default task of setting precedence.
The government was again put to the corner and had to stamp its authority on the Druk Holding and Investments (DHI) and the Royal Education Council (REC). The two agencies enjoyed a high degree of autonomy and it apparently seemed as if the government had no say over them. It was an institutional overlap which the government had to correct and did so by approaching His Majesty in both cases.
The biggest hurdle for the elected government and also the National Assembly was its apparent difference with the constitutionally apolitical National Council. The National Council apparently overstepped its traditional mandate of being apolitical and a house of review to lobby for even money bills to be endorsed by it. If the National Council had had its way, it would have made it difficult for the government to function.
In all the above cases, the government had all the reasons to worry because any single incident could have handicapped its functionality.
It also needs reiteration that the importance of the government’s “precedent-setting” role has been highly underrated. This government and the prime minister in particular have been extra cautious about this role. Therefore, it is only natural to assume that this government took some decisions, which could include few unconventional and unpopular ones, only to fulfill this role. The prime minister’s demand for a liberal interpretation of the constitution could be one such issue. To make it tricky, the government was not in a position to acknowledge it.
Therefore, this government has to be given a benefit of doubt when it took the Supreme Court verdict rather emotionally and went on to contemplate resignation.
The prime minister has apologized for causing a national concern over the issue. When he formed the government in 2008, he declared that he would not hesitate to dissolve his government for national interest. By not resigning, it only proved that the government realized that its resignation would not be in the interest of the nation.
Moreover, the Supreme Court verdict favors the ruling government primarily because its standoff with the National Council regarding the issue of money bills, the only major issue it has not been able to solve among those highlighted above, has been solved by the verdict. It states that the National Assembly can ignore the Council’s recommendations on money bills if deemed “unnecessary.”
Looking back, we can say that the first constitutional case has only helped consolidate our democratic system.
The opposition did its job to take the case to court. The judiciary has reminded the executive and the legislation that noble intentions are not enough to run the country. The law of the land has to prevail and there can be no excuses about it. Both the opposition party and the judiciary have also set precedents in each case.
The above post appeared as an editorial in Business Bhutan on March 19, 2011