Choose Australia India over China

China or India: choice of direction in Bhutan

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Foreign policy was taboo in the election campaign, and so was national security. This was agreed by the four parties that had run for the third parliamentary election in Bhutan. These issues are too "sensitive", and the debates on the small country in the Himalayas could be too destabilizing.

The concern was no accident. Five years ago, in the political mud battles leading up to the country's second general election, India stopped gas and kerosene subsidies for a month. The entire population was affected by the dramatic rise in prices. A "technical error," said India. But it was clear to everyone that it was a lesson for the then ruling Druk Phunsum Tsogpa (DPT, United Bhutan Party), which had tried to improve relations with China - or rather: at least to establish it.

And India's measure showed fruit: The DPT lost the election, but two India-friendly parties came into the runoff election. Unlike in Austria, for example, the parliament in Bhutan consists of only two parties. Any number of parties can run in a first ballot, but only the two with the most votes will be in the runoff election.

The ruling party is already out

This year's runoff will take place on Thursday. It is already certain that there will be a change of government afterwards. Because the previously ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) had not passed the hurdle of the first round of elections in September. In first place surprisingly came the relatively new Druk Nyamrub Tsogpa (DNT, Common Bhutan Party) with 32 percent - and again in second place was the DPT with 31 percent.

Which of the two parties wins the race will also have an impact on the power struggle between the world powers China and India. Bhutan is traditionally dependent on India. The diplomatic relations of Bhutan ran through the giants in the south until 2007. The victory of the DPT in the first election in 2008 showed that not everyone in the country is satisfied with this.

The DNT was only founded in 2013 and is considered pro-Indian. The DPT, in turn, would like to lead Bhutan out of the Indian embrace. The then Prime Minister Jigme Thinley (DPT) met with his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao - which India snubbed. It is also said to have been Thinley who made the right phone calls last summer to resolve the crisis on the Doklam Plateau. At that time, heavily armed Indian and Chinese soldiers faced each other on Bhutanese territory for 72 days. China had built roads into Bhutanese territory, India came to defend Bhutan - and its own interests.

Influence in the Himalayas

Because for China and India there is more to it than Bhutan. China is trying to gain the upper hand in the Himalayas and control important water resources and geopolitical central positions. India, in turn, is counting on the electricity supplies from the Bhutanese hydropower plants and is defending its narrow "chicken neck" - the corridor that connects India's northeast areas with the plains.

The fact that India is losing influence in the Himalayas can be seen in Nepal, a few hundred kilometers further west. Similar to Bhutan, the country has always been under Indian protective power. But since the rise of the Maoists and the fall of the monarchy in 2006, China has been able to gradually gain influence. In the meantime, Chinese investments have increased rapidly. Nepal recently signed an agreement with China on the use of Chinese ports. The population is largely behind the new developments.

Economic cooperation with China is also growing in Bhutan: Beijing is now the third largest importer. In the run-up to the election, high-ranking representatives from China visited the small country in the Himalayas.

High suicide rate in the land of happiness

And Bhutan can use the new attention from China. Youth unemployment has been rising for years, drug problems in the capital Thimphu are becoming more and more dramatic, and the country is recording alarming suicide rates. The concept of "gross national happiness" has been attracting international sympathy for decades. As one of the poorest countries in the world, Bhutan receives development funds - Austria is one of the largest donors. So far, Bhutan has relied on the international brand of the homogeneous, happy, Buddhist kingdom.

But: It is often forgotten that this excludes the non-Buddhist minorities in the country. In the 1990s, up to 100,000 people who immigrated from Nepal decades ago fled. The "Lhotshampas" complained about repression and torture by the government. It is not known how many remained in Bhutan itself. When DNT party leader Lotay Tsering also spoke in Nepali at his election rallies, it was received positively by many Lhotshampas.

The fact that the voters of the already eliminated PDP are more likely to vote for the pro-Indian DNT than the DPT, which is also open to China, gives the DNT somewhat better chances in the second ballot. But the two previous elections in Bhutan already showed that the country is good for surprises. (Anna Sawerthal, October 17, 2018)