Royalists win in landslide in Bhutan

March 24, 2008 9:39:16 AM PDT
A political party seen as the more royalist of two groups seeking power swept the first parliamentary elections ever held in this secluded Himalayan kingdom, Bhutan's election commissioner said Monday. The Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party took 44 of the 47 seats in the new parliament, Election Commissioner Kunzang Wangdi said. The People's Democratic Party won the remaining three seats.

Turnout was slightly more than 79 percent of the 320,000 registered voters, Wangdi said. Even in remote corners of the largely rural country - in tiny hamlets where voting machines were delivered by yak - the election went smoothly, officials said.

The results will not be official until Tuesday morning.

The vote ended more than a century of absolute monarchy in the mountainous land long known as a quirky holdout from modernity, allowing television and the Internet only in 1999.

The election came with a twist: It was the king, not the people, who pressed for democracy.

"His Majesty is like our father. We all prefer our father," said Karma Tsheweng, a 35-year-old mechanic.

But Tsheweng and hundreds of thousands of others nonetheless lined up at polling stations across the Land of the Thunder Dragon to vote Monday, excited at getting to try something new but nervous about what may happen after they've traded their Precious Ruler for politicians.

The country of about 600,000 people has prospered under royal rule. Its fast-growing economy is slowly lifting many people out of poverty and nearly everyone has access to schools and hospitals.

The success contrasts with other South Asian countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh, which can seem like case studies in democracy gone wrong. Even in neighboring India, democracy is a chaotic and corrupt affair that has done little to provide decent education or medical care for many of its 1.1 billion people.

The democracy process in Bhutan was started by King Jigme Singhye Wangchuck, who abdicated in favor of his son in December 2006. Bhutanese regularly refer to both as "His Majesty."

"There was much resistance when His Majesty told us that we must decide our future if Bhutan was to prosper," said Karma Dorji, a 55-year-old civil servant who was waiting to vote.

Since then, Dorji said, "we have come to see that this is an opportunity he has given us because he is farsighted and wise." Still, he said: "We prefer our king."

Apart from trepidation about the future, the campaign for the 47-seat National Assembly has also been baffling for many in a society that frowns on self promotion and open criticism.

"Why do we need these people and their arguments?" asked 48-year-old Kinzang Tshering after listening to one candidate make his spiel days before the vote. "They tell us they are better than the other ones. How should I know which one is better?"

It is hard to tell. The two political parties both hew closely to the king's vision. Both feature leaders who served twice as prime minister under royal rule.

Both say they will follow the government's latest five-year plan - they call it "His Majesty's vision." And both say they'll promote Gross National Happiness, an all-encompassing political philosophy that seeks to balance material progress with spiritual well-being.

After the election, the king, 28-year-old Jigme Keshar Namgyal Wangchuck, will remain head of state and likely retain much influence.

Monday's vote is the latest step in Bhutan's slow engagement with the world, which began in the early 1960s.

Back then Bhutan was a medieval society with no paved roads, no electricity and no hospitals. Goods were bartered rather than bought and almost no foreigners were let in.

But across the Himalayas, other isolated Buddhist kingdoms such as Tibet and Sikkim were coming under the sway of foreign powers. Bhutan - sandwiched between Asian giants India and China - decided it needed to change to survive.

The country now has a cash economy and welcomes about 20,000 tourists a year, albeit on heavily supervised and expensive trips. It's even likely to soon join the World Trade Organization.

Still, Bhutan retains many of its peculiar ways. Mountain climbing is banned to preserve the pristine forests that laws dictate must cover 60 percent of the country. Bhutanese must go about in public in their national dress: a colorfully striped knee-length robe for men and an embroidered silk jacket with a wraparound skirt for women.

The dedication to preserving Bhutanese culture also has a darker side.

More than 100,000 ethnic Nepalis - a Hindu minority concentrated in southern Bhutan - were forced out in the early 1990s and have been living as refugees in eastern Nepal.

Militant groups that arose among the expelled Nepalis set off at least nine small bombs this year in an effort to disrupt the election, killing one person. Bhutan sealed its borders Sunday and said it would not reopen them until after the vote.