Bhutan Learns to Vote

Bhutan,

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

year.

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

nation."

In Bhutan,

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

kingdom."

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,

or GNP.

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

sense.

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

in 1999.

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,"

Namgyal asserted.

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

here."

Next year they can debate those relations with India

in parliament.