Bhutanese Cautiously Approach First Vote
Monarch Insisted On Democracy

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.

But Bhutan is clinging hard to its traditions, and national dress is mandatory in offices and places of worship. The country's fortress-style architecture is the only construction allowed, and even gas stations have pagoda-like roofs.

"Our country is going through drastic changes," said Kezang Lhamo, 23, at a cafe with friends after work. "We always had His Majesty, the person we believed in, our king, to guide us through. Times are confusing now. But we try to trust and stay hopeful."

The campaign has kept Bhutanese sensibilities in mind. There were no expos┬┐s of extramarital affairs or allegations of rigging. In debate rules issued by the electoral commission, candidates were told to use "constructive criticism, please."

Two main political parties are vying for votes. They are the Druk Pheunsum Tshogpa, or DPT, with its slogan of "Growth with equity and justice," and the People's Democratic Party, or PDP, with the slogan "Service with humility. Walk the talk."

Analysts say there are few ideological differences between the two parties. And both have a leader who served two terms as prime minister under the monarchy. The head of the party that wins a majority of the 47 parliamentary seats will become the country's first elected prime minister.

One candidate accused his opponent's wife of donating a butter lamp, a traditional gift used to burn butter or oil, to a monastery to win the support of monks, who hold powerful sway in villages. Another candidate criticized the opposing party for its yellow campaign logo -- yellow is the royal family's color.

"We were very happy before this election, because the country was peaceful," said Thugi Dema, 50, as she chewed a clump of betel leaf that turned her teeth bright red. She flashed a button showing the king's face, pinned to her traditional dress. "We don't need this tiresome campaigning. It's not our culture."

A recent front-page headline in the Bhutan Times read: "Tired, tired, tired!" According to the article, campaigning in some districts had ended early because "people are instead looking forward to getting back to their fields with sickles and spades. Politicians are realizing that their desperate call for people to listen to their promise-laden homilies is not working anymore."

In an open letter to the nation Saturday, the king urged Bhutanese to vote and defended his family's move toward democracy.

"This transition is a Bhutanese transition," he wrote in the government newspaper, Kuensel, explaining that the gross national happiness index would make the democracy truly Bhutanese. "We are not compelled -- nor would it be wise for a unique nation like ours -- to follow blindly what happens elsewhere. This election and the democracy that we will build are the result of the sacrifice and hard work of generations of Bhutanese people. It's another important step toward strengthening our nation."

What little violence there has been in the run-up to the elections comes from Nepalese rebel groups, which asserted responsibility for three bombings this week. No one was seriously injured. The government forced as many as 100,000 ethnic Nepalese out of the country in the 1990s. Ethnic Nepalese still form a sizable community in Bhutan, and they have put forward 19 candidates in this vote, hoping to gain a louder voice.

At a hotel in Phuntsholing, on the border with India, the chef, Namgyal Bhutia, was busy recently preparing red rice and green chili peppers with yak cheese, Bhutan's national dish. He said the country's election was as unique as its food.

"The king has given power to the people, so we will try this experiment," said Bhutia, 32, as he tucked his cellphone into the folds of his traditional dress, called a gho. "In Buddhism we learn that all things are impermanent. And that's too bad, sometimes. Now, we can only hope for the best."

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