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 , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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.

"Personally, I would prefer to keep the king's rule," says Kunzang Wangdi, Bhutan's chief election commissioner, as he joined a queue of voters in Thimphu early on Saturday morning. "But even a good monarchy is seen as an autocratic government."

A vote to end voting

In the end, only 125,000 of Bhutan's population of 635,000 voted. And when the results were announced on Saturday night, Bhutan appeared to have voted for the status quo, insofar as the elections allowed them to do so. Of four fictitious parties – Druk Red (for industrial development), Druk Green (for ecological sustainability), Druk Blue (justice and accountability), and Druk Yellow (traditional values) – the Yellow Party emerged as the hands down winner, with around 44 percent of the vote.

"Yellow stands for Bhutan's culture, but it's also the color of the scarf the king wears for ceremonial events," said a beaming Tandin Dorji, a tour guide in Thimphu, on Sunday morning.

Part of the reason why this plan is so unpopular with most Bhutanese is that the last king wrought many other dramatic changes. In the 34 years of his rule, Bhutan flourished in many ways: Schools, hospitals, and roads were built and life expectancy shot up from 40 to 66.

Life for many, however, remains tough. Although huge demand from energy-deficit India has given Bhutan a booming hydropower sector – sales of surplus hydropower to India account for more than half of Bhutan's government revenues – there is practically no other industry in the country, apart from tourism. More than 60 percent of Bhutan's population of 635,000 survives on subsistence-level farming.

And yet it is in the countryside that opposition to democracy appears to be strongest.

"We've lived a very happy life under the king," says Kensho, a farmer, as he stood outside the simple wooden house he is building near the village of Zhanglakha, about 16 miles from Thimphu. Many rural Bhutanese go by only one name.

"I'll go to vote – I have a card," he says, holding it up. "But I don't want one tiny thing to change."

But perhaps the most vocal opposition to the trial elections has come from Bhutan’s decimated Nepalese minority. The Nepalese, who arrived in southern Bhutan in the late 19th century, were expelled in the 1980s after the king intensified efforts to preserve Bhutan’s Buddhist character. Around 100,000 Nepalis fled or were expelled. Today they languish in refugee camps in Nepal, from where many have denounced Bhutan’s move towards democracy as a means to deflect international criticism over the refugee crisis.

With such strong opposition from his loyal subjects, it seems surprising that the last king should have decided to usher in democracy. Some have conjectured that democracy would help preserve the kingdom's independence against predatory neighbors. Although Bhutan has a long-standing friendship with India, it has refused to establish diplomatic relations with China with which it has an outstanding border dispute. The king is doubtless mindful of the fact that after China's invasion of Tibet and India's adoption of nearby Sikkim, Bhutan is the last Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas.

Some speculate that the last king introduced democracy to prevent the kind of sudden, violent uprising that toppled King Gyanendra in Nepal last year.

Still others expressed fears that with democracy will come the corruption endemic in other parts of south Asia.

“I’m afraid that if power is given to good people they will become bad,” says Thinlay, as he carried his granddaughter along a dusty track near Zhanglakha.

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