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Bhutan’s 2024 National Elections: New Dawn with an Old Guard

Ms Sneha M. is a Research Analyst in the South Asia Centre at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi.
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  • February 21, 2024


    The People’s Democratic Party (PDP), under the leadership of Tshering Tobgay, clinched victory in the Bhutan National Assembly elections by securing 30 out of 47 seats. The electoral process unfolded in the backdrop of economic distress faced by the people in Bhutan. The PDP government’s key tasks going forward include revitalising the economy and navigating Bhutan’s relationship with India and China.

    Almost all South Asian countries embraced multiparty democracy in 2008, with Bhutan and Maldives holding elections with multiple parties for the first time that year. This is not to say that democracy has had a smooth run in the region ever since. Bhutan, one of the latest entrants to democratic political system, though has demonstrated considerable enthusiasm to continue with peaceful democratic transition from one election to another, while elections in many other states like Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan have led to controversies and political instability. The 2023–24 National Assembly (NA) elections in Bhutan underscored this commitment, serving as a testament to the consolidation of democratic principles in Bhutan’s political landscape.

    A new leadership has assumed office following the conclusion of the fourth general elections held in two rounds on 30 November 2023 and 9 January 2024. The election was predominantly influenced by significant economic challenges such as high job attrition rates, skyrocketing brain-drain and infrastructure development that have prompted people to critique the longstanding policy of the Bhutanese political system prioritising ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH) over economic growth.

    The Electoral Process

    As per the 2008 Election Act of the Kingdom of Bhutan, the National Assembly elections are held in two rounds (Section 189).1 In the primary round, all registered political parties are eligible to participate, while the top two parties by vote count proceed to the final round, which is called the general election.

    In the fourth national elections, all five political parties listed below participated in the primary round, which saw the exit of Druk Phensum Tshongpa (DPT), Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), the former ruling party, and Druk Thendrel Tshogpa (DTT), a relatively new entrant. In the subsequent final round, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), under the leadership of Tshering Tobgay, clinched victory by securing 30 out of 47 seats in the National Assembly.2 The Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP), registered only in January 2023, and led by Pema Chewang, a former civil servant, secured the remaining 17 seats, becoming the primary opposition party. The overall voter turnout was recorded at 65.6 per cent.3

    Political Parties

    Prime Ministerial Candidate

    Results of the First Round

    Results of Second Round


    Tshering Tobgay

    133,217 votes

    (42.54 %)

    179,652 votes



    Pema Chewang

    61,1331 votes


    147,123 votes



    Dorji Wangdi

    46,694 votes




    Lotay Tshering

    41,106 votes




    Kinga Tshering

    30,814 votes



    Source: Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB)

    As far as the internal political dynamics are concerned, the elections revealed two prominent trends. Firstly, there was a noticeable regional divide in the way the electorate voted. The leader of BTP hails from the east and most of the BTP candidates, triumphed in 16 out of 17 constituencies, spread across the six eastern districts. Conversely, the leader of the PDP, hailing from western Bhutan, secured his party’s dominance in the entire western region as well as in the central region.

    With the PDP in power now, there looms a genuine risk of marginalisation of the entire eastern region, because of lack of representation of the region in the new administration. In the previous government, three Cabinet ministers were from the eastern region. However, this time around, PDP has only one representative from the area and it remains to be seen whether the new government would devote as much attention to the region as the previous government.

    Passang Dorji, a former member of Bhutan’s Parliament, highlighted that in the past elections, all the 12 constituency seats in the south consistently supported the ruling party.4 However, in the recent election, the ruling DNT could not retain its support from the south which can be attributed to the introduction of the Sustainable Development Fee (SDF), which ended free entry for regional tourists from India, Bangladesh and Maldives, impacting domestic tourism and the hotel industry, particularly in the South.

    Geographically, southern Bhutan serves as a gateway for Indian travellers, who make up a significant portion of the annual tourist influx.5 Consequently, the high-cost barrier deterred potential tourists, leading to decreased arrivals, notably in the southern region, and adversely affected hoteliers. This dissatisfaction may have influenced southern voters to opt for a change in government.

    Secondly, there persists a glaring failure to bridge the gender gap in political representation. Despite both parties nominating three female candidates each, only two have emerged victorious in the election, one each from BTP and PDP. Consequently, these two female MPs will comprise a mere 4 per cent of the Lower House in the National Assembly. Achieving gender parity in positions of power has consistently proven to be an obstacle in Bhutan, despite women constituting 46.79 per cent of the population and 50.8 per cent of the electorate, owing to the nation's patriarchal societal framework. Additionally, out of the five distinguished members appointed by His Majesty the King to the 25-member National Council, only two are women, resulting in a total female representation of four members, or 12 per cent, in the House.

    Furthermore, the re-emergence of popular support in favour of PDP may be attributed to its robust leadership and demonstrated expertise in steering the country through economic challenges between 2013 and 2018. During his earlier tenure as PM, Tobgay had overseen initiatives such as establishment of a domestic helicopter service and implementation of an educational policy consolidating smaller rural schools. This experience might have convinced citizens of the party's ability to fulfil its promises and address their concerns. In short, the Bhutanese have displayed their electoral inclination in favour of a seasoned political party.

    The Economic Landscape and Domestic Obstacles

    The electoral process unfolded in the backdrop of economic distress faced by the people in Bhutan. According to data released by the Royal Monetary Authority, Bhutan's foreign currency reserve stood at US$ 464.66 million as of September 2023, approaching the minimum reserve threshold of US$ 464 million.6 Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic growth stagnated, and the government could not revive the tourism sector. By January 2024, Bhutan's national debt soared to US$ 3.38 billion surpassing 100 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) for the year.7

    Concurrently, the nation grappled with two interconnected challenges: a pronounced exodus of skilled labour, particularly from critical sectors like healthcare and education, and the persistent inadequacy of employment opportunities for its burgeoning youth population.8 Compounding the concerns, Bhutan had to grapple with significant attrition rates among its civil servants. According to the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC), the attrition rate surged from 4.65 per cent in 2021–22 to 16 per cent in 2022–23.9

    Given the poor state of the economy, the manifestos and televised debates of political parties highlighted the urgent need for economic revitalisation. There were no major ideological differences in the manifestos of the two parties, PDP and BTP. Notably, BTP promised to boost the economy by taking the GDP to US$ 10 billion by 2034 through self-reliance and progressive economic policies.10

    In contrast, PDP pledged to cultivate supportive industries like steel and cement to address the pressing need for job creation. The PDP outlined its ambitious goals in the manifesto including doubling Bhutan's GDP to US$ 5 billion during the next five years, generating 10,000 jobs annually, boosting the manufacturing sector's contribution to GDP from 6 per cent to 30 per cent and escalating foreign direct investment (FDI) from US$ 500 million to US$ 6 billion. These goals looked modest and achievable compared to that of the BTP.11

    Nonetheless, the new PDP government will have to deal with multiple challenges. Bhutan, heavily reliant on aid and tourism, faces formidable hurdles in revitalising its economy after the COVID-19 pandemic. PM Tobgay's commitment to attracting investment is critical as the nation endeavours to raise the GDP to US$ 5 billion. The issue of unemployment—which drives Bhutanese youth abroad in search of opportunities and closing the gender gap in politics—highlights the pressing need for effective socio-economic policies.

    Walking the Diplomatic Tightrope?

    Bhutan’s bilateral relationship with both its important neighbours, India and China, is complex, as it is influenced by the nature of India–China relationship. There is a perception in Bhutan that if Bhutan relies heavily on one, the other would not take it kindly. The delicate balancing act is evident in the fact that Bhutan is trying its best to navigate through the regional rivalry between its two major neighbours. It has deep-rooted economic ties with India while it is keeping its border negotiations with China alive.

    In October 2023, the Bhutanese Foreign Minister made his inaugural visit to China. Concurrently, Bhutan continued to enhance its economic relations with India through the proposal of constructing a 1,000 square kilometre international city on the Assam border which would connect it with Southeast Asia. The project located in Gelephu called the Mindfulness city is expected to evolve into a sustainable township featuring environment-friendly industries with zero emissions.

    However, it has to be acknowledged that there is a growing anti-India sentiment among the newer generation of the Bhutanese population.12 There are concerns surrounding Bhutan's economic development within the developmental framework laid down by India. The successive Bhutanese governments are grappling with the increase in unemployment and growing foreign debt owed to India.

    As Bhutan aims to diversify its economic growth beyond dependence on hydropower, there is a hush-hush debate going on among the youth and the private sector to bring in Chinese investment which can secure them a potentially brighter future.13 However, in the absence of formal diplomatic relations with China, the interaction between the two has been limited. It is well known, nevertheless, that previous DPT and PDP governments in Bhutan had shown their willingness to engage in dialogue with China which had raised Indian concerns. For instance, former Prime Minister Jigme Thinley of DPT had pursued an expansion of diplomatic ties with China, aimed at securing greater investment.

    Similarly, Tshering Tobgay, leading the PDP government during 2013–18 emphasised on “protecting [Bhutan’s] sovereignty and security to ensure that [the people of Bhutan] remain independent for [all time to come],” and talked about taking “a strategic long-term view of our engagement with China to ensure that our national interests are secured”.14 This had possibly raised the eyebrows in New Delhi even if Tobgay had, for most part of his prime ministership, prioritised economic benefits through sub-regional connectivity with India, SAARC and BIMSTEC members, keeping China at an arm’s length.

    With Lotay Tshering of DNT as prime minister in 2018, Bhutan faced pressures from China to address boundary disputes. Similar to the approach of the DPT government from 2008 to 2013, Lotay Tshering's administration also prioritised investments and sought to enhance cultural connectivity, even hinting at the possibility of upgrading relations with China, while continuing to deepen economic interaction with India. The new government in Thimphu led by an experienced Tshering Tobgay is likely to wade his way through similar pressures while he is expecting to maintain Bhutan’s strategic ties with India, like his predecessors.


    Keeping national interests in mind, the PDP government has jumped into action by implementing four executive orders and ten directives related to economy, education and employment of contract labourers to make Bhutan a “Better Druk Yul15 ” or a “Better Bhutan” as promised within a week of assuming power.16 It remains to be seen if the PDP government will be able to sustain the momentum in the long run.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.