Shangri-la Votes

Jigme Singye Wangchuk With democracy nonexistent or in turmoil in four of its larger neighbors – Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh and Nepal – Bhutan is spending the last day of 2007 embarking on the path to democracy. Its first democratic election, taking place Dec. 31, has been bequeathed by its Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, who has voluntarily made himself the last in a line of hereditary absolute rulers.

While the election for the National Council, or upper house of parliament, has been marred by voter apathy and a lack of candidates, it nonetheless represents a remarkable achievement for the tiny, remote Himalayan kingdom of only 600,000 people, and for Jigme Singye, who abdicated the throne in December 2006 in favor of his son, the Oxford-educated Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk. Jigme Singye spent 37 years in power as the fourth representative of the current dynasty that came to power in 1907. Jigme Khesar will become a ceremonial monarch once a new parliament is completed in 2008, which will assume the power to impeach even the king with a two-thirds vote.

The National Assembly, the lower house, will be elected early in 2008, probably February or March. That body will choose a prime minister and the candidates will come from two contending political parties. In Monday’s vote for the National Council, the candidates are supposed to be respected citizens with no political party affiliation. Their role in the new system will be to serve as a check on the more political National Assembly, which will have 47 seats.

The polls, during a newly-commissioned national holiday, are 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. Under GNH, prosperity is to be balanced against the health of Bhutan's natural environment, its people and its culture.

The election has been carefully-orchestrated, with two mock elections held prior to the real thing. The border with India was sealed for 36 hours beginning Sunday to prevent “unwanted elements” from entering the country. “Travelers, voters, election officials and candidates who are required to move through India, must reach their destination in Bhutan before 6:00 pm on December 30,” said a recent announcement by the Bhutan Home Ministry. It also added that “the sealing of border is expected to ensure a favorable voter turnout.”

The pages of local newspapers have been filled with advertisements for the election. The government-owned local television station has been filled with advertisements in the national language, Dzongkha, on the importance of voting. The Bhutan police and the Royal Bhutan Army have been strengthening security. Electronic voting machines, supported by India, are being used in the polling process, and observers from India, the US, Australia and the United Nations are monitoring.

The new democratic regime in Thimphu, the nation’s monastery-studded capital, will face a number of issues, one of the biggest being what to do about some 100,000 ethnic Nepali refugees who fled Bhutan 17 years ago to protest a law depriving them of their citizenship at a time when the king was trying to encourage racial purity. Their plight is a serious blot on Bhutan’s newly democratic image. The refugees have languished in Nepali refugee camps ever since, seeking vainly to get back home.

The Nepal government has vainly raised the issue with Bhutanese authorities in 15 rounds of talks. India, Bhutan's friendliest neighbor and biggest aid donor, has kept out of the dispute, arguing that it was a bilateral matter between Nepal and Bhutan. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has acknowledged that an immediate solution is difficult to perceive. Although the UNHCR’s mission is to try and send refugees back to their home country, it appears that in this case they will be resettled, some 60,000 going to the United States, with others to Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway.

Speaking to Asia Sentinel from New Delhi, Suhas Chakma, the director of the Asian Human Rights Center, stressed that the international community must be mindful of the implications of resettlement without a written commitment from Bhutan. It would be tantamount to supporting ethnic cleansing by the Bhutan government, Chakma said. He warned that if Bhutan can get away with refusing to take back the refugees, remaining ethnic Nepalis in southern Bhutan might also be forced to renounce their citizenship or leave Bhutan.

In the meantime, there are other teething problems with democracy. In five dzongkhags, or constituencies, the election has been postponed “due to non-availability of more than one candidate,” according to the election commission.

And the makeup of the upper house still bears the stamp of Jigme Singye. While the National Council is to have 20 directly elected members from each dzongkhag, five eminent personalities will be nominated by the King to form the 25-member upper house.

In the crucial general election, where political parties come into play, one party, the Bhutan People’s United Party, has already been disqualified by the election commission, supposedly because it lacked maturity, as evidenced by the fact that more than 80 per cent of its members are school dropouts or have no academic qualifications.

That leaves two, apparently more suitable, political parties in the fray. The People's Democratic Party, headed by former agriculture minister Sangay Ngedup has chosen a white horse as its election symbol. The Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, led by former home minister Jigmi Y Thinley, has three symbolic Bhutanese black-necked cranes in flight on its banner.

The election commission has appealed to voters to leave aside personal issues. “Let us vote and make a difference during both the National Council and the National Assembly elections,” the commission said. “One should also participate in shaping the future of the country and fulfilling the country's vision for a vibrant democracy."

Despite the importance the government has attached to the polls, however, the local media reported that hundreds of Bhutanese are continuing to cross the border into India, with many seemingly unaware of the election.

Kuensel, the biggest weekly newspaper, editorialized on the reluctance of voters to go to the polls. "The urban population has been expressing some lethargy, particularly over National Council elections. Residents of Thimphu and Phuentsholing, who are registered in their villages, are reluctant to spend the time and money to travel several days to go and vote," it said. "One of the main reasons is that a majority of the candidates are relatively unknown. Many people claim that they do not even know the candidates from their own dzongkhags."

However, the editorial concluded: "The National Council election is an important event in Bhutanese history. Even if it is not as exciting as the general election it will hold many lessons for us, as candidates or voters, as the government, or as the new Constitutional institutions. And, at this stage, every lesson learned will help shape the electoral process."