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Bhutan votes for stability; rejects king's uncle

Thimpu, March 24, 2008

The people of Bhutan shocked even themselves on Monday, voting for stability and experience in their first ever parliamentary elections but overwhelmingly rejecting a party led by the king's uncle.

This was not a vote against the much-loved king of Bhutan or a century of royal rule -- many people had said they were reluctant to embrace democracy, and the winner of the elections, Jigmi Thinley, was himself a staunch royalist.

But the scale of his victory, winning 41 or 42 of the 47 seats on offer according to results collated in party offices, sent subtle messages which will reverberate around this deeply traditional and conservative land.

"It is truly amazing," said Palden Tshering, spokesman for Thinley's Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT). "The people really have made the decision."    

The present king's uncle Sangay Ngedup even lost in his own constituency. If the king had to stand aside, the people of Bhutan seem to be saying, they are not sure they want his many relatives by marriage to take over.

"They have given the government to the public now," said one voter who declined to be named, in a country still not used to criticism of the elite or political discourse. "The youth must have chosen."    

The winner, Thinley, was a former prime minister under royal rule, a man closely associated with the king's idea that economic development be balanced by respect for traditions and the environment.

His team included two other former prime ministers and two ex-finance ministers.

Bhutan's two political parties say they had never wanted democracy -- the idea was thrust upon them by their fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who abdicated in favour of his son two years ago.

The fifth king, the 28-year-old Oxford-educated Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, had urged all his people to exercise their franchise in a statement issued at the weekend, and the Bhutanese people do not ignore a royal command.

Sandwiched between India and China, Bhutan might not quite be the Shangri-la of popular imagination, but there is a sense of harmony among its conservative, Buddhist majority. Some worry that the adversarial nature of democracy could undermine that.

The election is the latest step in Bhutan's slow process of modernisation and development. In 1960, it had no roads and practically no schools or hospitals. Today, education and healthcare are free, most villages have water and electricity, and life expectancy has risen to 66 years from less than 40.

But even Shangri-la has its problems.  A booming industry selling hydro power to India creates wealth but few jobs. Unemployment, crime and drug addiction are rising along with rural-urban migration, and a quarter of the population still lives below the poverty line.

Those issues form the core of both parties' manifestos, but neither dares mention the country's most intractable problem.

In 1990, tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis were forced out of Bhutan after protesting against the imposition of national dress and the closure of Nepali language schools. More than 100,000 now live in crowded camps inside Nepal. A similar number still live in southern Bhutan, but exiled groups say tens of thousands have been denied identity cards -- and thus voting rights -- making "a mockery" of the election. - Reuters




Tags: democracy | Election | Bhutan |

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