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.
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"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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.