Structure of the Government

Bhutan Table of Contents

Legal Basis

Bhutan does not have a written constitution or organic laws. The 1907 document submitted by the monastic and government leaders was an agreement only to establish an absolute hereditary monarchy. Bhutan's only legal or constitutional basis is the 1953 royal decree for the Constitution of the National Assembly. The 1953 constitution set forth eighteen succinct "rules" for the procedures of the National Assembly and the conduct of its members. The May 1968 revision reiterated and elucidated some of the eighteen rules but revised others. Beginning in 1969, the powers of the speaker of the National Assembly were strengthened, and the Druk Gyalpo's veto power was eliminated.


The unicameral National Assembly--the Tshogdu--comprises the legislative branch of government. The National Assembly has the power to enact civil, criminal, and property laws; to appoint and remove ministers; to debate policy issues as a means of providing input to government decision making; and to control the auditor general, who has approval authority over government expenditures.

Since its establishment in 1953, the National Assembly has varied in size from 140 to 200 members. According to Rule 7 of the Constitution of the National Assembly, the legislature sets its size every five years. The National Assembly has three categories of members: representatives of the people elected by indirect vote every three years and comprising between half and two-thirds of the National Assembly membership; monastic representatives, also appointed for three-year terms and constituting about one-third of the membership; and government officials nominated by the Druk Gyalpo. The first woman member of the National Assembly was seated in 1979.

In 1989 there were 150 members in the National Assembly, 100 of whom were representatives of the general public. Under 1981 rules, qualified citizens over twenty-five years of age can be nominated at general public meetings by village heads and adult representatives of each household (gung) and "joint family." Once nominations are certified by village heads and local government officials, they are forwarded to the speaker of the National Assembly for "final declaration of the nominee as a member of the National Assembly." The other fifty members are made up of monastic representatives nominated by the Central Monastic Body in Thimphu (or Punakha in the winter) and eight district monastic bodies, members of the Council of Ministers (Lhengye Shungtsong), members of the Royal Advisory Council (Lodoi Tsokde), secretaries of various government departments, district heads, others nominated by the government, and a representative nominated by the Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The National Assembly meets at least once and sometimes twice a year--in May and June and again in October and November; each session lasts about four weeks. Emergency sessions can also be called by the Druk Gyalpo.

The National Assembly elects a speaker from among its members and is authorized to enact laws, advise the government on constitutional and political matters, and hold debates on important issues. Executive-branch organizations are responsible to the National Assembly. Powers of the National Assembly include directly questioning government officials and forcing ministers to resign if there is a two-thirds no-confidence vote.

National Assembly votes are secret in principle, but in practice decisions are almost always made by reaching a public consensus. The National Assembly, housed in the Tashichhodzong, provides a forum for presenting grievances and redressing administrative problems. The Druk Gyalpo cannot formally veto bills that the National Assembly passes, but he can refer them back for reconsideration. Although criticism of the Druk Gyalpo was not permitted in the public media, it was allowed and took place in National Assembly debates in the 1980s.


At the apex of the executive branch is the Druk Gyalpo, who is both head of state and head of the government. Responsible to him are two advisory and executive organizations: the Royal Advisory Council and the Council of Ministers. There also is the Royal Secretariat, which serves as an intermediary between the Druk Gyalpo and the Council of Ministers.

The Royal Advisory Council was mentioned in the 1953 constitution of the National Assembly (members of the council are concurrently members of the National Assembly), but it took on greater importance in 1965 when the Druk Gyalpo installed representatives elected by the monastic bodies and the National Assembly. In 1989 the council's membership included a representative of the government, two representatives of the monasteries, six regional representatives, and a chairperson, all for five-year terms. The chairperson and the government representative are appointed by the Druk Gyalpo; the two monks represent the central and district monastic bodies. Monk representatives, according to 1979 regulations for council membership, are required to be literate and "highly knowledgeable about the Drukpa Kargyupa religion." Monk nominees are subject to the approval of the speaker of the National Assembly. The regional representatives are elected by the National Assembly from a list endorsed by village assemblies. Representing the southeastern, southwestern, western, eastern, central, and the Thimphu-Paro-Ha regions, they are required to be literate, knowledgeable about Bhutanese traditional culture and customs with "some knowledge of modern customs and etiquette," "well-behaved and able to speak well," "able to shoulder responsibility, and far-sighted." As the principal consulting body to the Druk Gyalpo, the Royal Advisory Council is a key state organization and interacts most directly with the National Assembly.

Chaired by the Druk Gyalpo, the Council of Ministers was established in 1968 with the approval of the National Assembly. In 1991 it comprised seven ministers and the Druk Gyalpo's representative in each ministry (agriculture; communications; finance; foreign affairs; home affairs; social services; and trade, industry, and tourism). The largest ministry by far was the Ministry of Social Services, which ran the nation's education and health systems and included nearly 26 percent of all civil service employees. Two of the ministers in 1990--the minister of finance (Ashi Sonam Chhoden Wangchuck) and the minister of home affairs (Dasho Namgyal Wangchuck)--were members of the royal family.

Until the 1960s, the Royal Secretariat played a major role in government affairs. The key officials of the Royal Secretariat were the Druk Gyalpo's representative in the Royal Bhutan Army, the royal chief secretary, and the royal finance secretary. After the establishment of the Council of Ministers and subsequent shift of administrative and financial matters out of the palace, however, the Royal Secretariat's day-to-day role diminished in importance. Relations between the two bodies have been described as cordial, nevertheless, and ministers usually were selected from among Royal Secretariat personnel.


The highest-level court is the Supreme Court of Appeal--the Druk Gyalpo himself. The Supreme Court of Appeal hears appeals of decisions emanating from the High Court (Thrimkhang Gongma). In 1989 the High Court, which was established in 1968 to review lowercourt appeals, had six justices (including a chief justice), two of whom were elected by the National Assembly and four of whom were appointed by the Druk Gyalpo, for five-year terms. Each district has a magistrate's court (Dzongkhag Thrimkhang), headed by a magistrate or thrimpon, from which appeals can be made to the High Court. Minor civil disputes are adjudicated by a village head. All citizens have been granted the right to make informal petitions to the Druk Gyalpo, some of which have been made reportedly by citizens who flagged down the Druk Gyalpo's automobile as he toured the nation.

Civil Service

Bhutan's government employees have been under the authority of the Royal Civil Service Commission since its establishment in 1982. Part of the commission's mandate was to reform government service. With assistance from the UNDP, the commission held a conference in 1986 and assessed the civil service. Plans were laid out for providing in-country and foreign training, improving training effectiveness, and organizing a system by which personnel and training management would be linked within departments. Civil service rules adopted in 1989 established procedures for government employment and prohibited civil servants from being assigned to their home districts. Starting in 1989, candidates for government service were given only one opportunity to pass the civil service selection examination. Once they were selected, promotions were available through seventeen grades, from the lowest clerk to just below the deputy minister level.

In an efficiency drive in the late 1980s, the civil service was reduced through reorganization (the government was scaled down from thirty-three entities at and above the department level in 1985 to nineteen in 1989), reassignment to local government, retirements, and "voluntary resignations." In 1987 there were 13,182 civil service workers, but by 1989 the number of regular civil service employees had dropped to 11,099. An additional 3,855 persons worked under government contract or as "wage" employees throughout all parts of the government. More than 1,650 of them, however, were employed by government-run industries, and another 848 worked for the Chhukha Hydel Project. The total number of persons working under the civil service in July 1989 was 15,802. Later in 1989, however, all public and joint sector corporation employees were removed from the civil service rolls. Because of the national shortage of skilled workers, 3,137 members of the civil service in 1989 were reportedly "nonnationals," mostly ethnic Nepalese.

Local Government

Local government in 1991 was organized into four zones, or dzongdey, and eighteen districts, or dzongkhag. Before the zonal administration system was established beginning in 1988 and 1989, the central government interacted directly with district governments. The new level of administration was established, according to official sources, to "bring administration closer to the people" and to "expedite projects without having to refer constantly to the ministry." In other words, the zonal setup was to provide a more efficient distribution of personnel and administrative and technical skills. The zonal boundaries were said to be dictated by geophysical and agroclimatic considerations. Zonal administrators responsible for coordinating central policies and plans acted as a liaisons between the central ministries and departments and district governments. Each zonal headquarters had nine divisions: administration, accounts, agriculture, animal husbandry, education, engineering, health, irrigation, and planning. The divisions were staffed with former civil service employees of the Ministry of Home Affairs and with technical personnel from the various sectors in the districts. Four zones were established in 1988 and 1989: Zone I, including four western districts, seated at Chhukha; Zone II, including four central districts, seated at Chirang; Zone III, including four central districts, seated at Geylegphug; and Zone IV, including five eastern districts, seated at Yonphula. Although Thimphu District and Thimphu Municipality were within the boundaries of Zone I, they remained outside the zonal system. By 1991, however, only Zone IV was fully functioning.

Eighteen districts comprised local government at the next echelon. Each district was headed by an appointed district officer, (dzongda, assisted by a deputy district officer, dzongda wongmo or dzongrab), who was responsible for development planning and civil administration. Formerly appointed by the Druk Gyalpo, district officers have been appointed by the Royal Civil Service Commission since 1982. Each district also had a district development committee comprising elected representatives and government officials.

Districts were further subdivided into subdistricts (dungkhag) and village blocks or groups (gewog). Ten of the eighteen districts had subdistricts, which were further subdivided into village groups. The subdistrict served as an intermediate level of administration between district government and some villages in larger districts. These same districts also had village groups that were immediately subordinate to the district government. In the remaining eight smaller districts, village groups were directly subordinate to the district government. In 1989 there were 191 village groups, 67 of which were organized into 18 subdistricts and 124 of which were immediately subordinate to the district government. Subdistrict officers (dungpa) led the subdistricts, and village heads (gup in the north, mandal in the south) were in charge of the village groups. Despite greater central government involvement with economic development programs since the 1960s, villages continued to have broad local autonomy. There were 4,500 villages and settlements in 1991.

Bhutan also has two municipal corporations--Thimphu and Phuntsholing--headed by mayors (thrompon). Thimphu's municipal corporation was set up in 1974 as an experiment in local self-government. Headed by a chairperson, the corporation concentrated on sanitation and beautification projects. A superintending engineer, an administrative officer, a plant protection officer, and a tax collector served under a chief executive officer. Ward councillors carried out local representation in the city's seven wards. In subsequent years, municipal boards were set up in the larger towns.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress