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In Bhutan, a 'mock' poll for democracy's uninitiated

To prepare for the country's first elections next year, Bhutanese queued up on Saturday for a trial run.

By Mian RidgeContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 26, 2007

ThimpHu, Bhutan

Tshering Pem looked a little bewildered as she stood in line at a polling booth in Thimphu, the capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. She had never voted in an election before and was not sure that she wanted to.

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"I want the king to rule," said the housewife, as she fiddled shyly with her vote card.

On this occasion, however, Mrs. Pem's vote did not count. Neither did the votes of thousands of other Bhutanese who, on Saturday, waited in neat lines across the country. Their ballots – the country's first national poll – went toward mock polls organized in preparation for the kingdom's first parliamentary elections in June 2008.

Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist kingdom sandwiched between India and China, has been ruled by a hereditary monarchy since 1907. But after a century of untrammeled power, its monarchy has decided to impose democracy – even though many of its subjects say they do not want it.

It is an odd situation, a king struggling to hand over his power, but then Bhutan is one of the most extraordinary countries in the world.

Known by its people as Druk Yul, or the Land of the Thunder Dragon, because of its violent storms, Bhutan is a gloriously unspoiled land of thick forests and misty mountains dotted with ancient monasteries.

Here, the national sport is archery, which reached its apex in England six centuries ago. Every building is built in a handsome, centuries-old style, with intricately carved wooden windows, which means that even the airport makes visitors gaze. There are no traffic lights.

Most Bhutanese – though they accessorize with Nike sneakers and Ray Ban shades – dress in national attire: the gho, a baggy, wraparound robe worn with knee-length socks, for men; the kira, a floor-length dress with a jacket for women. No one in the kingdom owned a television set until 1999; the Internet made its debut a year later. And Bhutan is the only country in the world where smoking is banned.

Democracy on the roof of the world

"Just as Alice, when she walked through the looking glass, found herself in a new and whimsical world, so we, when we crossed the Pa Chu, found ourselves as though caught up on some magic time machine fitted fantastically with a reverse," the British governor of Bengal, Lord Ronaldshay, wrote of his visit to Bhutan in 1921. Surprisingly little has changed in the intervening years.

Perhaps most curious of all is Bhutan's promotion of Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an alternative development measure to Gross National Product (GNP). The term was coined by Bhutan's last king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the 1970s, when Bhutan was admitted to the United Nations.

"It's an idea that's catching on across the world, the importance of things like a sense of community," says Nicolas Rosellini, the UN resident coordinator in Bhutan.

"But here in Bhutan, where there is genuine contentment, people want to know how democracy will fit in. That's why these mock elections are such a sensible step."

It was King Wangchuck who launched Bhutan's democratization process in the late 1990s. In 1998, he ceded some powers to a national assembly; in 2001, the chairman of the assembly was declared prime minister. Last December, he handed the throne to his 26-year-old, Oxford-educated son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, to oversee Bhutan's transition to democracy.

Before abdicating, the last king circulated a draft constitution stipulating that the king would become head of state, but parliament would have the power to impeach him by a two-thirds vote.