Bhutanese Cautiously Approach First Vote

In Phuntsholing, hotel chef Namgyal Bhutia said he would travel for four days to vote in the country's first election.
In Phuntsholing, hotel chef Namgyal Bhutia said he would travel for four days to vote in the country's first election. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 23, 2008

THIMPHU, Bhutan, March 22 -- The journey of this tiny, tranquil Himalayan kingdom from a hereditary monarchy to a modern democracy has not been without pitfalls.

One candidate had to scrap his campaign after his feet became too sore from trekking through alpine forests and far-flung yak-herding villages in search of votes.

During a mock training exercise in democracy that included a street protest, unknowing residents of the capital, Thimphu, became so frightened by the loud chanting of slogans that they called the police.

"My mother called me frantically asking what was happening," chuckled Ugyen Tshering, a candidate in the capital who served as an ambassador to the United Nations under the monarchy. "We in Bhutan are not familiar with such public displays."

On Monday, Bhutan is set to become the world's newest democracy, with the country's first national elections after a century of monarchy. But many Bhutanese fear the polluting power of electoral politics, equating democracy with the often turbulent and corrupt versions of government in nearby countries such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal.

In this deeply religious Buddhist kingdom, commonly known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, many Bhutanese say they are going along with the elections only out of loyalty to their much-loved fourth king, who insisted on a democratic transition and tasked his son, the current king, with carrying out that vision.

"We worry that the scratching and attacking of campaigns will create a disturbance in our closely knit society, where respect and community vitality have been our strength rather than the importance of the individual," said Sonam Chuki, a political science lecturer at the Royal Institute of Management in Thimphu. "No one ever pushed the king or said it was high time for democracy. But we hope for happiness and a stable outcome."

In preparing for a peaceful and historic handover of power rare in this part of the world, Bhutan's fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, pushed an agenda that also included lifting many of its rural citizens out of poverty through education, road building and health programs.

Wangchuck's vision has been guided by what he called "gross national happiness," a measure of societal success in preserving the environment and culture while pursuing sustainable development. Wangchuck wanted to save the country's culture, its unique form of Buddhism and its vast, virgin forests, freshwater streams and snow-capped Himalayas.

His son, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, a 28-year-old Oxford-educated bachelor, took over in 2006 and followed through on his father's wishes. He is set to serve in an advisory role in the new government.

Political analysts say the fourth king made a savvy move for the vulnerable nation, which is roughly half the size of Virginia and wedged between India and China. Democracy, they say, could give Bhutan more clout on the global stage and help safeguard it against encroachments by surrounding countries.

Because of its mountainous terrain, Bhutan has remained isolated. Struggling against the forces of globalization, the country did not allow satellite television or the Internet until 1999. Ever since, the onslaught of American culture can be seen in the fashion choices of Bhutanese teenagers, many of whom wear baggy jeans and hoodies. Discos in Thimphu pulsate with Aerosmith and Pink Floyd.

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