Bhutan’s unusual two-round system

In 2013, Bhutan held competitive elections for its National Assembly, using a system that just might be unique.

The election was conducted in 47 single-seat districts, in two rounds. However, the first round was actually a primary in which votes were tallied nationwide to determine which two parties would be entitled to present candidates in each district in the final round.

In the primary, the results showed the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) winning the most votes among the four parties contesting, with 44.5%. In second place was the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), with 32.5%. The largest of the eliminated parties had 17.0%.

I counted eleven cases in which one of the eliminated parties finished in the top two within a district. The Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa was first in two districts and second in eight, while the Druk Chirwang Tshogpa was second in one. Many of these second-place finishes were very distant, but a few were competitive. (Treat my numbers in this paragraph as just a rough count.)

In the general election, with just the two parties running, the PDP won 32 seats to the DPT’s 15. The vote percentages were 54.9-45.1.

I know nothing about Bhutanese party politics, but it is noteworthy that the DPT had almost precisely the same vote percentage in the two rounds, so the primary appears essentially to have resolved which one of the opposition parties would survive to the general round. It does not look as if any but a very small number of voters from eliminated parties swung to the DPT.

The total number of votes cast in the second round (252,485) was somewhat higher than that in the primary (211,018). The DPT itself grew from 93,949 to 113,927 votes, which is 48.17% of the total turnout differential between rounds, and thus only slightly higher than its initial percentage among primary voters.

The malapportionment of these districts appears to be extreme. Just a couple of examples: the Khamaed_Lunana district had 714 votes cast for the two candidates (and two votes separating them!) in the general election, while Gelegphu had 9,318 votes cast.

There are also elections to a National Council, which also use single-seat districts (just 20, corresponding to provinces and hence even more malapportioned), but in one round and nonpartisan, at least officially. Many of the districts have more than two candidates (and a few have only one). This could be interesting for analysis of voting behavior across the two systems!

The three elections were all on separate dates: Council 23 April , Assembly on 31 May and 13 July.

(Thanks to JD, via email, for the tip!)

5 thoughts on “Bhutan’s unusual two-round system

  1. Never actually implemented, but the IRO-AV version of this gets proposed from time to time for Australia, ie summarily excluding, after the first-preference count, all candidates but the two of the two parties with the most first-choice votes in the whole election across all districts, and re-allocating all ballots among those two. Someone named Barry from Sydney proposed it in the now-defunct “Bulletin” in 1991 after Independents helped the Labor Opposition force out NSW Premier Nick Greiner over a trivial ethics breach. I’ve seen the idea resurface a few other times since. (It seems to be one of those memes that occurs to people separately, like Approval Voting, or legislators exercising varying numbers of constituents’ proxy votes).
    The idea usually founders on what to do about the National Party, which typically polls fewer votes overall than the largest “minor” party (DLP, then Democrats, One Nation and now Greens) but runs first or second in many fewer districts. I can picture the frustration of the “absolute majority government or anarchy, nothing in between” as they realise that even single-seat districts (with relatively small legislatures, usually well below the cube root of the population) can’t stop the occasional Tony Windsor, Liz Cunningham, Karlene Maywald, Susan Davies or, err, Tony Windsor from holding the balance of power in a hung parliament.
    If used in a polity with three or more parties who are closer in first-count electoral support than are the Greens and Labor/ Coalition in Australia – say, France, the UK, India or some other multi-party system – the Bhutanese system seems to be a recipe for Canadian-style instability. You’d have only Govt and Opposition represented in the parliament at any given time, true, but it could well be A/B in the last Parliament, B/C in the current House and A/C (or even C/D) in the next legislature.

    • I’m all for reforming Australia’s system, and most countries where I know enough about the system to see any flaws, but this system strikes me as being a bit bad. And by a bit, I mean really bad.

      I am not a fan of single member districts deciding the government. It strikes me as undemocratic that absolute parliamentary power can beg given to a party that comes in first in a majority of districts without having a majority of the total vote, or in some countries even the plurality. In Australia I think it is specifically an issue when politicians claim an electoral mandate on a small share of the primary vote and when primary vote shares for small parties in no way reflect the number of seats they hold.

      But this system is worse than that. What happens when the candidate receiving a majority vote in the district/riding/what-have-you cannot win because his party came third nationally?

      • ” It strikes me as undemocratic that absolute parliamentary power can be given to a party that comes in first in a majority of districts without having a majority of the total vote, or in some countries even the plurality.”
        The great thing about Australia, of course, is that they don’t get ‘absolute’ power but are constrained by a very powerful upper house which IS elected by PR.

      • Agreed. It is a pretty bad system even by the standards of majoritarian systems. In this election, it worked about as well as it could. By that I mean that two parties were clearly dominant over the rest, and only one district did not have its plurality winner eligible to present a candidate in the general election. But one can’t count on such results being the norm.

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