Bhutan Learns to Vote
|Our Correspondent||Apr 21, 2007|
the tiny Himalayan kingdom sandwiched between Nepal,
India and China, is off on a new adventure. Dragon
King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, who abdicated from the throne in December after 37
years in power, wants to incorporate democracy into gross national happiness,
the measure of prosperity he invented in the 1980s for his isolated country.
After centuries as an absolute monarchy, Jigme, the fourth
representative of the current dynasty which came to power in 1907, directed the
Land of the Thunder Dragon to try multiparty democracy. Mock elections are
scheduled for Saturday, April 21 as a dress rehearsal for the real thing next
But not everyone is thrilled with the prospects of
democracy. "We have heard about the polls on the Indian side,” a
middle-aged woman trader in Phuentsholing, an India
town bordering Bhutan,
told Asia Sentinel. “Sometimes, unexpected incidents also come out with the
elections. We do not want those here in Bhutan. After all, we are a peace-loving
she added, “Today we have no strikes. Everything is on schedule. But there is
lots of news about bandhs (strikes) in India that even take innocent
lives. I am even scared of thinking such incidents will follow democracy in our
The electoral exercise for this Buddhist nation of fewer
than 600,000 is the latest step in a liberalization process that began in the
1980s, when Jigme determined that his isolated kingdom's measure of prosperity
should be gross national happiness — GNH — rather than gross national product,
Prosperity would be balanced against the health of Bhutan's
natural environment, its people and its culture. So far, as reported by a wide variety of
western publications goggle-eyed at a seemingly backward country whose policies
appear to make considerable sense, Bhutan under Jigme’s guidance — his 26 year
old bachelor son is the current Dragon King — appears to be making considerable
The constituencies for the National Assembly have already
been demarcated. The new Election Commission has geared up for the mock
election on April 21 with another round scheduled for May 28.
"The total number of voters is estimated at 400,626,
where 884 polling centers have been set up," Dasho Kunzang Wangdi, chief election
commissioner (CEC) told local journalists.
The remote, crag-studded kingdom, stippled with spectacular
Buddhist monasteries, was locked away from visitors for centuries until Jigme, who
took the throne in 1972, decided to open it up about 20 years ago. It has no
daily newspapers and only a single television station that began broadcasting
Weekly newspapers based in the capital, Thimpu, reported
that “on April 21, four dummy political parties, namely Druk Red Party, Druk
Blue Party, Druk Green Party and Druk Yellow Party with different symbols and colors
will participate in the preliminary round of polls.”
School students are supposed to stand as mock candidates.
The votes are to be tabulated by electronic voting machines, something many
more advanced democracies don’t yet have. The student candidates are
campaigning and distributing manifestoes. Polling will be 9 am to 5 pm. Polling
and counting officers, observers and security personnel have been assigned to
help officials prepare for next year’s real election.
The transition from monarchy to democracy began five years ago
when Jigme empowered a council of ministers. In 2004, he disclosed a 34-point constitution
to be subjected to a referendum, following which it is to replace the present
regime. The progress towards democratization is taking place in the absence of
riots or other messy insurrections, as for instance took place in nearby Nepal,
forcing the monarchy to cede power in 2006. Next year there will be a prime
minister and a parliament.
Last December, Jigme stunned his subjects by agreeing to
abdicate immediately in favor of his eldest son, Crown Prince Jigme Khesar
Namgyal Wangchuk, who at the time was 26 and is now the world’s youngest head
of state. Namgyal, as he is known, is a bachelor.
The king made his declaration in front of a crowd of nearly
8,000 monks, farmers and students at a remote village, abruptly announcing that
“Chhoetse Penlop (Bhutanese for the crown prince) will be enthroned as the
Fifth Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King).”
The Bhutanese were mostly astonished. Jigme Singhe Wangchuk had
ruled for a full 37 years and remains phenomenally popular. But he had
carefully groomed Namgyal to rule as a constitutional monarch. After completing
his schooling in Bhutan, he
graduated from Wheaton College in the United
States, earned a master’s degree in politics at Oxford and also studied at
the National Defence College of India.
Underlining his vision of a modern Bhutan that would combine democracy
and a constitutional monarchy, Namgyal argued in a recent public address that
his country may not have economic or military might, but should continue to
develop its real assets – the people. He
also argued that Bhutan’s
precarious geopolitical location could be turned to advantage, much as Switzerland, another mountainous land, has
prospered between Germany, France and Italy.
"Some say we are a country landlocked between giant
neighbors. We are aware of that disadvantage but in building a strong economy,
our geopolitical location is going to be our biggest advantage," he told
the graduates of Sherubtse
College in Kanglung earlier
this month. The king also termed India a close friend.
"As the world's largest democracy, our young democratic
system will always benefit from India's
experience. As an economic power of the future, our economy will only benefit
from cooperation with India,"
Meanwhile, the Bhutan election commission is spreading
the democracy message. The local weeklies are getting rich off advertisements
from the election commission and the television channel is also carrying ads urging
the importance of voting.
But while the king is comfortable with his big neighbor, India is
something of an issue here. The arrival of Hindi television programming beaming
across the border from India
bothers some intellectuals.
"We are worried that Indian channels are hijacking our
prime time. We have even had to reschedule our news bulletins following popular
Indian serials," said a Thimphu based
journalist. "Similarly we are worried about a series of bad elements of India that could penetrate to Bhutan after democracy is installed
Next year they can debate those relations with India