Bhutan makes it official: it's a democracy

The DPT swept 44 of 47 seats in the new National Assembly.

Mian Ridge
Bubesa, Bhutan: Kuenzang Zam, a farmer's wife, was so excited about Monday's election that she could not sleep the night before."I think democracy will bring developments like electricity and water supplies to remote places," she says. "I like the king, but there was a big gap between him and the people. Politicians will come in between."
Mian Ridge
Bubesa, Bhutan – Turnout was high -- nearly 80 percent -- in Monday's election in Bhutan. But not everyone is certain what the future holds. Among some Bhutanese women who voted, the question was why new leadership was needed when the country had a good king already.

In warm spring sunshine, hundreds of thousands of Bhutanese queued to cast their ballots in the world's newest democracy yesterday. The elections will transform this diminutive nation, squeezed between India and China, from a hereditary monarchy into a modern democracy.

By late Monday evening, the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) party had won the election, sweeping up 44 of the 47 seats in the new parliament. Turnout among the 320,000 registered voters was high, at nearly 80 percent.

"Provisional results suggest that the DPT has won by a landslide margin," says Tshering Dorji from Bhutan's election commission.

Bhutan's first democratically elected prime minister will be Jigmi Thinlay, a charismatic politician who has portrayed the DPT as the party of ordinary Bhutanese. His rival, Sangay Ngedup, leader of the rival People's Democratic Party (PDP), is the brother of the previous king's four wives, all sisters – a connection Prime Minister-elect Thinlay turned to his advantage. Had Mr. Ngedup won, say observers, it might have appeared as though power was simply being passed on to another member of the royal family.

In the days preceding the poll, the DPT appeared to be running neck and neck with its only rival. The parties shared near-identical manifestos, depriving Bhutan's elections of much drama. Both were based on the present government's five-year-plan and promised a rush of modernization in this remote, conservative country.

Indeed, as voters waited to vote yesterday morning, they seemed less interested in party politics than in the looming changes that are coming to their country.

In Babesa, a pretty village near the capital, Thimphu, a sense of nervous anticipation rippled among the few hundred people who formed tidy queues at a primary school-turned-polling booth an hour before voting began at 9 a.m.

Many of the women were wearing their best silk kiras, a bolero-type jacket worn with a long skirt, which they pinned with sparkling brooches. Others wore small badges showing the smiling face of the fifth king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, whose father, the fourth king, decreed that Bhutan should switch to a democracy.

"I'm worried," says Kuenzang Choden, a housewife wrapped in a purple yak-wool shawl, as she waited outside the old mud-and-wood school building. "It doesn't seem sensible to put our country in the hands of the people when we have such a good monarch."

Others were more upbeat about democracy. Passang Wangdi, a retired civil servant, said he was confident of the abilities of all the candidates: In Bhutan, all those standing for parliament must possess at least an undergraduate degree. Many of Bhutan's new politicians are doctors and lawyers.

"The monarchy system isn't bad; it's good," Mr Passang goes on, as he stands in the shade of a blossoming peach tree. "But as the country changes and develops, democracy makes sense. I hope that in 15 to 20 years, Bhutan will be as modern and developed as any foreign country."

Organizing first-time elections is always a daunting task. But the logistics have been especially challenging in Bhutan, where large sections of the population are reachable only by foot. Several thousand polling officers were tasked with ensuring that polling stations operated smoothly.

The chief election commissioner, Kunzang Wangdi, said that mules and horses had carried voting equipment to remote polling stations, while helicopters were used to drop in voting guidelines.

But more challenging than these logistics was the "very concerning" threat posed by Nepalese rebel groups, Mr. Wangdi said.

The Thursday before the polls, Nepalese rebel groups detonated three bombs. No one was seriously injured. The grievances of these groups stem from 1990, when tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis were forced out of Bhutan after they protested what they claimed was discrimination.

More than 100,000 ethnic Nepalis now live in crowded camps in Nepal, although some have now been given citizenship in the United States.

Around the same number live in southern Bhutan. Many claim to have been denied identity cards, and with that, the right to vote.

Observers believe that the needs of Bhutan's ethnic Nepalis will be addressed after elections. Nineteen Nepali candidates stood in the country's 47 constituencies.

"I think this issue will be addressed when the new government is in place," says Gopilal Acharya, editor in chief of the Bhutan Times. "It should be a priority."

Security concerns aside, Bhutan's first elections were conducted with characteristic tranquility and good grace.

Democracy has, however, introduced a new, adversarial style that the traditionally peaceable Bhutanese may take some time to adjust to.

In the run-up to polls, some politicians engaged in public mudslinging, accusing each other of low-level corruption and vote buying – claims that have been covered gleefully by newspapers here.

"You could say that democracy changed Bhutan even before voting began," says Palden Tsering, spokesman for the DPT. "The country never, ever saw this kind of behavior before."

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