Bhutan wary of democratic change
The isolated nation holds its first-ever national election Monday after decades of guardianship by kings who severely limited contact with the outside world.
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Bhutan, which is wedged between India and China, has been ruled for over a century by kings who have jealously guarded it from the outside world. International media were allowed into the kingdom only in 1974 and television in 1999. Tourism and foreign investment have been limited in order to slow the homogenizing influence of global culture.
But after Monday, when Bhutan elects its first democratic government, the kings' guardianship will come to an end. Bhutan, also known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, will be ruled by the people. The king, who had ruled with absolute power, will become a constitutional monarch, impeachable by a two-thirds vote in parliament.
At the moment, however, many Bhutanese are concerned about what changes this new democracy will bring, and most say they would prefer to be governed by their adored king.
"I love the king; I can't see what's wrong with having him as ruler," says Payang Bidda, as she sits by the roadside stall where she sells bright-red chilis and salty dried fish in Thimpu, the capital.
Democracy is the kings' will
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.