Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Bhutan’s political rights rating improved from 4 to 3 due to an increase in government transparency and a peaceful transfer of power after the opposition won parliamentary elections for the first time, and its civil liberties rating improved from 5 to 4 due to an increase in open and critical political speech, the political opposition’s greater ability to hold demonstrations, and the growing independence of the judiciary.
The opposition party won national parliamentary elections in 2013, and the first transfer of parliamentary power to an opposition party in Bhutan’s history followed. In the run-up to the elections, Bhutanese voters apparently had been angered by the country’s economic dependence on India, and by the ruling party’s focus on promoting the concept of “gross national happiness” in international forums rather than attending to the economic needs of the country’s residents.
As Bhutan’s democracy has become more consolidated following a recent transition to a constitutional monarchy, other aspects of its political culture have become freer as well. The media environment has become increasingly liberalized, adding to a climate of free expression. In 2013, the country drafted a freedom of information law that would force government officials and ministries to operate more transparently, putting the onus on ministries to publish information about their decisions. It had yet to pass at year’s end.
The freer media climate and more competitive politics have also resulted in greater condemnation of corruption. In 2013, the home minister and speaker of parliament were convicted of corruption charges in a landmark case.
Political Rights: 28 / 40 (+6) [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 10 / 12 (+2)
The constitution provides for a bicameral Parliament, with a 25-seat upper house, the nonpartisan National Council, and a 47-seat lower house, the National Assembly. Members of both bodies serve five-year terms. The current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, formally succeeded his father as king in November 2008, though he had been in power since the outgoing king’s abdication in 2006. The monarchy remains highly popular with the public. The king appoints 5 members of the National Council, and the remaining 20 are elected; the lower house is entirely elected, and the head of the majority party is nominated by the king to serve as prime minister.
The logistics of voting and vote counting remain heavily dependent on expertise and technology from India. In the 2013 parliamentary elections, held over two rounds in May and July, the opposition People’s Democratic Party won 32 of 47 seats. The Druk Peace and Prosperity Party had dominated the first national elections in 2008, winning 45 seats in Parliament, but in 2013 it won only 15 seats. International monitors deemed the 2013 national elections free and fair, and had also deemed the 2012 local elections free and fair. Although the 2013 national elections created uncertainty, the free vote and peaceful transfer of power were seen as signs of a healthy democratic system.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 10 / 16 (+2)
Political parties, previously illegal, were allowed to begin registering in 2007, and Bhutan now has two major parties and at least two smaller ones. Although the law officially bars clergy from voting, monks and other religious leaders voted in previous elections. While international monitors have deemed recent elections free and fair, they have also noted that Nepali speakers have been turned away from voting. No party exists to represent Nepali speakers. Bhutan’s electoral rules stipulate that political parties must not be limited to members of any regional or demographic group.
Participation was relatively low for local elections held in 2011 and 2012, due partly to voter apathy and distrust that the polls would result in concrete change. Low turnout had also been attributed to the remoteness of parts of Bhutan, where officials and voters had to walk for miles to reach polling stations. However, turnout for the 2013 national elections was high—it was estimated at about 80 percent of eligible voters, roughly the same as for the 2008 parliamentary polls.
C. Functioning of Government: 9 / 12 (+2)
Bhutan has in recent years made a rapid transition from a system in which the monarch and his advisers had enormous influence over the elected Parliament to one in which the elected Parliament determines its own policies. Although the king still has some influence over ministerial positions, in general the party in control of Parliament now selects its own cabinet, and staffs it with its own choices for ministerial posts. The cabinet has increasingly taken on the role of governing, not deferring to the monarch for guidance on most issues, though Bhutan still relies on India for defense and many foreign policy issues. The king remains the head of state and retains the right to appoint some members of the Supreme Court and the heads of national commissions.
Although corruption exists in Bhutan, the country has in recent years made significant strides in addressing graft by senior government officials. Courts have pursued and won cases against some of the most powerful political elites in the country, setting examples for lower-ranking officials; these types of prosecutions would not have occurred even five years ago. In March 2013, a district court convicted Home Minister Minjur Dorji and National Assembly speaker Jigme Tshultim of corruption charges related to the improper distribution of land; they were sentenced to one year and two and a half years in prison, respectively. The court also ordered that the plots they had illegally distributed be returned to the government.
In the fall of 2013, Bhutan published a draft right to information law that would guarantee greater government transparency and put the onus on government officials and agencies to release information about every major decision to the public. It had not yet been passed at year’s end. The 2006 Anti-Corruption Act established whistleblower protections, and the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) is tasked with investigating and preventing graft. In 2011, the National Assembly passed an anticorruption law that strengthened and expanded the ACC’s mandate. Bhutan was ranked 31 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Discretionary Political Rights Question B: -1 / 0
The Bhutanese government has for decades attempted to diminish and repress the rights of ethnic Nepalis, and to force many of them to leave the country, changing the makeup of the population of the country.
The government expelled a large percentage of Nepali speakers in the early 1990s, after previously stripping them of their citizenship. Many fled to Nepal as refugees. The government maintains that many Nepali speakers left Bhutan voluntarily or had been illegal immigrants. At the high point, over 108,000 such refugees lived in extremely poor conditions in Nepal and were denied reentry to Bhutan. A resettlement effort aimed at transferring the refugees to third countries began in 2007. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), by the end of 2013 roughly 80,000 of the refugees had been resettled in third countries, with the majority resettled in the United States. About 38,100 refugees from Bhutan remain in Nepal’s camps.
Civil Liberties: 27 / 60 (+3)
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 9 / 16 (+1)
The law protects freedom of speech and of the press. However, defamation can carry criminal penalties, and a 1992 law prohibits criticism of the king and has strict provisions on “words either spoken or written that undermine or attempt to undermine the security and sovereignty of Bhutan by creating or attempting to create hatred and disaffection among the people.” Journalists sometimes practice self-censorship, although not as much as in the past, and have had difficulty obtaining information from government bodies.
State media dominated press coverage prior to the start of reforms under which Bhutan shifted to a constitutional monarchy. A 2006 media law led to the establishment of two independent radio stations. Since then, the government has liberalized the issuing of media licenses, allowing more outlets to emerge. The state-owned Kuensel and two independent weeklies, the Bhutan Times and the Bhutan Observer, generally publish progovernment articles; they are allegedly favored with advertising revenue by the government and government-linked companies. Independent media outlets in general depend heavily on revenue from government advertising. Many newspapers struggle to make enough money to operate, with financial problems recently exacerbated by a decrease in readership following the elections. The internet is accessed by about 30 percent of Bhutan’s population, a figure that is growing significantly every year.
The constitution protects freedom of religion. While Bhutanese of all faiths can worship relatively freely, the Drukpa Kagyupa school of Mahayana Buddhism is the official religion and reportedly receives various state subsidies. The Christian minority has allegedly been subject to harassment by the authorities in the past, and permits for the construction of Hindu temples are apparently difficult to obtain. Few restrictions on academic freedom have been reported, though nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) claim that the teaching of Nepali and Sanskrit is banned.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 4 / 12 (+1)
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, but the government must approve the purpose of any protests, and often does not, essentially restricting demonstrations. Citizens must get government approval to form political parties and hold political rallies, and this approval process seriously restricts party organization. However, small antigovernment gatherings appeared in urban areas in the run-up to the 2013 elections. In recent years, security forces have arrested Bhutanese refugees based in Nepal who entered Bhutan to demonstrate for the right to return home.
NGOs that work on issues related to ethnic Nepalis are not allowed to operate, but other local and international NGOs increasingly have worked freely. Under the 2007 Civil Society Organization Act, all new NGOs must register with the government. The constitution protects the right of workers to form associations, but not for the purpose of conducting strikes. Most of the country’s workforce is engaged in subsistence agriculture.
F. Rule of Law: 6 / 16 (+1)
Since 2007, Bhutan has moved decisively away from a traditional monarchy and toward a constitutional and judicial-based rule of law and a constitutional monarchy. An independent Judicial Service Council created in 2007 controls judicial appointments and promotions. Until a new Supreme Court was finally seated in early 2010, the king served as the final arbiter of appeals, but the Supreme Court now does so. The judiciary is generally considered independent.
The civilian police force generally operates within the law. Prisons in Bhutan for the most part meet international standards. There are dozens of political prisoners being held in the country, according to NGOs. This is a decrease from the hundreds of prisoners kept behind bars in the past; most were jailed for being part of banned political groups from the past, such as the local communist party or parties that advocated for rights for ethnic Nepalis.
The Nepalese minority population, as well as people with disabilities, face significant discrimination. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) individuals also face discrimination, though one Bhutanese NGO represents LGBT people.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 8 / 16
The government requires that Bhutanese wear traditional dress on certain occasions and at certain times. Women participate freely in social and economic life but continue to be underrepresented in government and politics. Domestic violence is problematic, and rapes are underreported. In 2013, the legislature approved the Domestic Violence Prevention Act, which allows the National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) more freedom to create programs that address the problem.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year