Monday, March 24, 2008

Bhutan Holds Democratic Elections

Bhutan, the world's only Buddhist nation, a nation devoted to the happiness of its people, held Democratic elections for the first time today -- elections the previous king and his 28-year-old son, the current king, have been planning for years.

Besides making the happiness of its citizens a priority, this is a nation that has set aside 60% of its land as national forests that cannot be developed -- even mountain climbing is banned in these parks.

The curious thing is that many people in Bhutan did not want elections -- they were quite happy with their leader. Many of them fear the polluting nature of politics as witnessed in neighboring countries.

On Monday, Bhutan is set to become the world's newest democracy, with the country's first national elections after a century of monarchy. But many Bhutanese fear the polluting power of electoral politics, equating democracy with the often turbulent and corrupt versions of government in nearby countries such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal.

In this deeply religious Buddhist kingdom, commonly known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, many Bhutanese say they are going along with the elections only out of loyalty to their much-loved fourth king, who insisted on a democratic transition and tasked his son, the current king, with carrying out that vision.

"We worry that the scratching and attacking of campaigns will create a disturbance in our closely knit society, where respect and community vitality have been our strength rather than the importance of the individual," said Sonam Chuki, a political science lecturer at the Royal Institute of Management in Thimphu. "No one ever pushed the king or said it was high time for democracy. But we hope for happiness and a stable outcome."

In preparing for a peaceful and historic handover of power rare in this part of the world, Bhutan's fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, pushed an agenda that also included lifting many of its rural citizens out of poverty through education, road building and health programs.

Wangchuck's vision has been guided by what he called "gross national happiness," a measure of societal success in preserving the environment and culture while pursuing sustainable development. Wangchuck wanted to save the country's culture, its unique form of Buddhism and its vast, virgin forests, freshwater streams and snow-capped Himalayas.

His son, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, a 28-year-old Oxford-educated bachelor, took over in 2006 and followed through on his father's wishes. He is set to serve in an advisory role in the new government.

Political analysts say the fourth king made a savvy move for the vulnerable nation, which is roughly half the size of Virginia and wedged between India and China. Democracy, they say, could give Bhutan more clout on the global stage and help safeguard it against encroachments by surrounding countries.

Even those running for office would rather not be and have concerns about the desire to bring modernity into this ancient tribal kingdom.

It was Bhutan's fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, who decreed in 2006 that Bhutan should be transformed into a democracy. Since then, he and his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who assumed power last year, have set out to educate their subjects on the nuts and bolts of democracy. The fifth king is fast becoming as beloved as his father: photos of the handsome, Oxford-educated 28-year-old adorn most shops and homes.

Even politicians show extraordinary deference to the king.

"Everyone in the party would tell you they're only doing this because it's what the king wants," says Palden Tsering, spokesman for the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) or Virtuous Bhutan Party, one of the two parties contesting 47 seats in parliament.

Both the DPT and its rival, the People's Democratic Party (PDP), admit that their manifestos are practically identical. Both say their priority is to modernize Bhutan, connecting remote villages to roads and electricity and building more bridges over the country's gushing ice-melt rivers.

Infrastructure developments such as these may not sound like much, but in Bhutan, they will constitute a significant change. Visitors to Bhutan often describe this landscape of dense green forests, ancient Buddhist monasteries, and fluttering prayer flags as one of the last wonders of the world.

Here, the lush green countryside is pristine: visitors are not allowed to climb Bhutan's sacred mountains. There is not a traffic light in the entire country.

Bhutan's former caretaker prime minister, Kuenzang Dorji, says that retaining Bhutan's identity in a democratic framework could be difficult.

"Bhutan will modernize more quickly now for sure," says Mr. Dorji. "That's what the politicians are promising people. The challenge will be balancing economic development on one hand with cultural values and with the natural environment, which is so important to us."

Although Bhutan seems ideal in some ways, it also has a dark side.

Still, Bhutan retains many of its peculiar ways. Mountain climbing is banned to preserve the pristine forests that laws dictate must cover 60 percent of the country. Bhutanese must go about in public in their national dress: a colorfully striped knee-length robe for men and an embroidered silk jacket with a wraparound skirt for women.

But that dedication to preserving Bhutanese culture has a darker side.

More than 100,000 ethnic Nepalis - a Hindu minority concentrated in southern Bhutan - were forced out in the early 1990s and have been living as refugees in eastern Nepal.

Bhutan says most left voluntarily, and refugee rebel groups have set off at least nine small bomb blasts this year in an effort to disrupt the election, killing one person. To head off more attacks, Bhutan sealed its borders Sunday and said it will not reopen them until after the vote.

Tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis still live in Bhutan - 19 are candidates - but the fate of the refugees has not been an issue because parties are barred from speaking about matters of security or citizenship. They also cannot talk about the royal family.

As of this morning, Al Jazeera is reporting that more than 60% of the population turned out to vote.

Polls have closed in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan after voters in the world's newest democracy overcame reluctance to bring an end to a century of absolute monarchy.

About 61 per cent of 318,000 Bhutanese eligible to vote had cast their ballots by early Monday afternoon, Deki Pema, an election commission official, said.

The king had called for a large turnout and urged voters to choose between two markedly similar parties.

"First and foremost, you must vote. Every single person must exercise his or her franchise," King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck said in a statement published in the nation's newspapers.

Voters chose members of a 47-seat national assembly, or lower house of the parliament, in Monday's election, which was declared a national holiday.

I wish them luck.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think the Western self indulgent mystic of Bhutan actually hides what is wrong with this country.
It lives and thrives in the dark ages where the "king' imposes his total authoritarian rule that would make the Human Rights folk's toes curl!
having lived in neighboring India for years AND also gone to school with the "royal kids", Bhutan's democracy picture is a total farce!