Bhutan’s Elections Are a Bright Spot in South Asia

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: Bhutan holds free and fair elections as other countries in the region raise concerns, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina wins a fourth consecutive term, and India and the Maldives find themselves in an unusual diplomatic spat.


On Tuesday, Bhutan held a runoff to determine the country’s next prime minister, with voters choosing between Tshering Tobgay, a former premier with the People’s Democratic Party, and former bureaucrat Pema Chewang, who leads the relatively new Bhutan Tendrel Party. Tobgay won after his party took 30 of the country’s 47 national assembly seats.

With democracy under assault across much of South Asia, Bhutan seems to be an outlier. It began a relatively smooth transition from traditional monarchy to democracy a little more than 15 years ago. But unlike the elections held in Bangladesh last Sunday and those scheduled in Pakistan on Feb. 8, Bhutan’s vote wasn’t plagued by concerns about rigging and unlevel playing fields.

This week’s election was the country’s fourth. Bhutan began initiating political liberalization in the 1990s, and in 2008, it became a full-fledged parliamentary democracy, established a new constitution, and held its first democratic elections. The country retains its monarchy; King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk is charismatic and popular, but he wields relatively little political power.

To be sure, Bhutan’s democracy is imperfect. Freedom House characterizes the country as “partly free,” citing media censorship and discrimination against religious and linguistic minorities. Concerns abound about impunity and a lack of accountability among the Bhutanese political class.

Furthermore, this year’s election played out against a glum backdrop, especially for a country that famously uses “gross national happiness” to measure governance success. Bhutan’s economy is suffering, in part due to a tourism sector still struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The youth unemployment rate is 29 percent in a country—and half of its population is under 30 years old. Young people are leaving Bhutan in record numbers.

Both runoff candidates made economic recovery the central pillars of their campaigns. Bhutan’s neighbors—especially India—can also help. Bhutan is flush with hydropower potential, and energy-deficient New Delhi would be a useful customer. India is already contributing to Bhutan’s economic development through infrastructure projects, including a recently announced railroad initiative.

However, Bhutan’s ties to India also make it a battleground for India-China competition and sometimes confrontation. In 2017, India and China clashed over Doklam, a border area claimed by both Bhutan and China. This week, India’s NDTV published satellite images that it said show a Chinese military presence on territory claimed by Bhutan.

Like other states in South Asia, Bhutan doesn’t like getting caught up in the India-China rivalry, but it does benefit from any economic assistance that the regional powers may provide to shore up their influence. Both New Delhi and Beijing were undoubtedly watching this week’s election carefully.

Bhutan’s election was nonetheless a breath of fresh air in a region where electoral politics are often toxic. The first round of voting in November, which the incumbent party lost, proceeded without major incident. On Tuesday, there was no reported violence, nor crackdowns or boycotts. No opposition leaders have been jailed or convicted on politically motivated charges, and the election loser isn’t about to reject the result.

It’s certainly easier to hold stable elections in a country of less than a million people than in one of several hundred million, or even a billion. But in a region where democracy’s trajectory seems to be trending downward, Bhutan’s democratic transition—and the relatively free, fair, and credible polls that have followed—is a quiet success story.


Bangladesh’s Hasina wins fourth term. To no one’s surprise, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina triumphed in last Sunday’s elections. Her Awami League party was essentially running against itself. With the main opposition party boycotting the polls, most of those running against Hasina were either members of weaker parties or independents aligned with the Awami League.

Global reactions to the results varied. Non-Western powers, including China, India, and Russia, quickly issued congratulations to Hasina. Strikingly, Pakistan—one of the few South Asian states not comfortable with Hasina, given her close ties to India—also quickly offered its felicitations. Reactions in the West were more critical than congratulatory. The U.S. State Department said it “shares the view with other observers that these elections were not free or fair.”

But Washington also emphasized that it remains committed to partnership with Dhaka. This perhaps signals that Western approaches to Bangladesh will continue to push human rights and democracy even while strengthening relations with a country seen as strategically significant.

India-Maldives spat. When Mohamed Muizzu won the Maldives’ presidential election in November, many observers thought it could spell some challenges for relations with India, given his pro-China reputation. But few could have anticipated the diplomatic spat that has emerged in recent days, with Maldives officials leveling insults against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indian celebrities calling for a travel boycott of the island nation.

It all began when Modi posted images of himself enjoying the beaches of Lakshadweep, an Indian archipelago. Some in the Maldives thought Modi was suggesting that Indians vacation there instead of in the Maldives. Three officials—all from the youth ministry—responded with insults. Senior members of the Maldives government—including the foreign minister, but not Muizzu—condemned the comments.

On Sunday, the Maldives announced the three officials had been suspended, but the damage was already done. India’s External Affairs Ministry summoned the Maldives ambassador in New Delhi to express its concerns. A large Indian online travel platform has halted flight bookings to the Maldives.

Still, the crisis is unlikely to derail India-Maldives relations, which both sides have a strong interest in maintaining. New Delhi won’t want to give Muizzu’s government an opportunity to drift more closely to Beijing, while the Maldives is dependent not only on Indian tourism revenue, but also on development assistance from India, especially infrastructure.

Afghanistan-based group implicated in Iran attacks. According to U.S. intelligence, Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), the Afghanistan-based affiliate of the Islamic State, carried out the Jan. 3 attacks in Iran that killed nearly 100 people attending a memorial ceremony for Gen. Qassem Suleimani, a senior Iranian military official killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2020. The Islamic State claimed the attack, but it didn’t specifically mention IS-K.

IS-K has struck in Iran before, but never on this scale. The tragedy is a reminder of the threat that the group projects beyond Afghanistan, where it carries out most of its attacks. (It has also hit Pakistan and a few Central Asian states.) It also validates the recent warnings from IS-K scholars about the group making headway beyond Afghanistan.

IS-K, which was formally established in 2014, benefited from the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, even though the two groups are rivals. Many IS-K fighters were freed in Taliban prison breaks, the group likely inherited weapons left behind by collapsing Afghan military forces, and it no longer faces the threat of NATO airstrikes.


Around 400 Nepali citizens are fighting alongside the Russian army in Ukraine, according to a recent disclosure by Nepal’s foreign minister, Narayan Saud, who spoke with NPR in a report broadcast this week. Many Nepali fighters decided to join the Russian army for better economic opportunities or to benefit from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that foreigners can get fast-tracked Russian citizenship if they spend a year in the country’s armed forces.

However, the Nepali men may not have realized that they would be on the front lines of a brutal war. Several of them have died, and others are out of contact with their families. Nepal’s government is trying to address the problem by cracking down on traffickers that smuggle the men into Russia via India and the United Arab Emirates.

The situation reflects a broader trend in which economic stress has prompted Nepali citizens to travel far away, at great risk, to work in dangerous conditions to make a better living. In recent years, thousands of migrant workers from Nepal have died in the Persian Gulf region due to extreme heat, illness, road accidents, and suicide—including those who toiled under life-threatening conditions in Qatar to help with preparations for the 2022 World Cup.



Technology policy experts Lalantika Arvind and Srishti Joshi, writing in the Print, criticize a new Indian government initiative to reduce harmful content on social media. It was a “well-intentioned endeavour to ring an alarm bell and emphasise the need for intermediary accountability for user safety,” they write. “However, it went beyond what the law requires, resulting in impractical compliance obligations.”

A Dawn editorial welcomes a Pakistani Supreme Court ruling this week that reverses its own 2018 decision that disqualifications from public office last for life. “It cannot be up to the law to choose, based on such arbitrary conditions, who is and who isn’t ‘morally deserving’ of leadership and who, therefore, is to be allowed to participate in the electoral process,” it argues.

Scholar Dorji Wangchuk calls for the revitalization of Bhutan’s air travel industry in Kuensel. “Our airlines are more than just airlines. They are our connection and our lifeline to the world,” he writes. “I travel a lot. Nothing is more reassuring than seeing your own people and the flag waiting for you in India, Nepal or Thailand to take you back home.”

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