How has the Kingdom of Bhutan managed to transform itself from a traditional Buddhist monarchy to a constitutional monarchy with a two party system? This Centre for Bhutan Studies paper examines reform in Bhutan during the reign of Jigme Singye Wangchuck (1974-2006), the Fourth King of Bhutan. It argues that the king was instrumental in driving the reform process to its current position. Bhutan now stands on the threshold of new challenges more daunting than those it has confronted in the past.
The Fourth King of Bhutan’s commitment to reform was remarkable. He demonstrated that reform in a traditional society does not necessarily imply the destruction of this society. Far from conservatism, change in continuity has been a reality in Bhutan and a credible alternative to revolution. This is the core of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s political vision and constitutional legacy, and the vital lead of his action as a ruling monarch. As Bhutan enters unchartered political waters, his vision will remain an inspiration for further political changes.
The Fourth King has been vested with absolute powers during most of his reign. He has not been under any pressure to embark on the path of political modernisation. His institutional reforms have been organised under three major headings: decentralisation, devolution of his own powers, and good governance, paving the way for the constitution.
- The Fourth King initiated the process of administration decentralisation. Between 1976 and 1981 District Development Committees (DYTs) were established as a first step. Today there are 20 DYTs with more than 560 elected members.
- The Fourth King also proved to be in favour of a progressive devolution of his powers. This culminated in 1998, with the devolvement of full executive powers to an elected cabinet, the authority of which was defined by the National Assembly.
- Good governance has been high on the agenda of the Fourth King who commended the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB) on many occasions to rationalise and strengthen the bureaucracy.
- A new age has also started on the diplomatic front. Bhutan’s exposure to the world has been very positive for the kingdom both in terms of strategic, political and economic considerations, and without undermining its relationship with India.
The draft constitution was the last and most significant legacy of the Fourth King. It is clear that a new age has started in Bhutanese politics and that new challenges lie ahead.
- In a context where the monarch will not be and must not be the sole agent of modernisation, the polity will have to find a new balance. Responsibility of the cabinet, bureaucracy and members of parliaments will have to increase.
- The major challenge for the regime will be to allow confrontation to happen in occasions other than that of the National Assembly or the meetings of the local committees in a form that does not contradict consensus politics.
- The rise of a civil society that encompasses space outside the sphere of government will have to contribute to the process of further democratisation. The question of power sharing between government, private sector and NGOs will become more acute.
- As a new factor in Bhutanese politics, the role of political parties will be critical in the coming years.