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In Bhutan, a Historic Trek to the Polls
With First Vote for Parliament, Kingdom Becomes a Democracy

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

TOKTOKHA, Bhutan, March 24 -- Without revolution or bloodshed, this tiny Himalayan kingdom became the world's newest democracy Monday, as wildflower farmers, traditional healers, Buddhist folk artists and computer engineers voted in their country's first parliamentary elections, ending a century of absolute monarchy.

In a historic event for this country of 700,000, entire families took to winding mountain roads, traveling in some cases for days in minivans, on horseback and on foot to cast their ballots, marking Bhutan's transition to a constitutional monarchy.

Despite concerns that Bhutanese would be turned off by the rough-and-tumble world of politics, more than 79 percent of the estimated 318,000 registered voters turned out at polling places.

It was the king, as well as his father and predecessor, who ordered his subjects to vote, in the belief that democracy would foster stability in a country wedged between China and India and known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

By Monday evening, early tallies indicated that the Druk Pheunsum Tshogpa, or DPT, had won in a landslide, capturing 44 of the 47 seats in the National Assembly. Analysts said the party benefited from the fact that five of its members had served as government ministers in the royal administration. The People's Democratic Party, or PDP, won three seats.

"We are in total amazement," said Palden Tshering, spokesman for the DPT. "I think what happened was that they looked at the two parties and figured out that our party was one that could possibly give us a government that was envisioned by His Majesty."

Before abdicating the throne to his son in 2006, the country's fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, had taken methodical steps to give power to the people, saying that he believed no leader should be "chosen by birth instead of merit."

As part of his "gross national happiness" plan, he reformed the country's feudal system, giving land and jobs to the poorest farmers and launching free health and education systems. He and his Harvard- and Oxford-educated son, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, remain immensely popular. Many Bhutanese still refer to both father and son as "His Majesty."

The country is now likely to be headed by the DPT president, Jigmi Thinley, one of the architects of the gross national happiness development philosophy of grass-roots health, education and environmental programs. Both parties said they would work to bridge the gaps between them.

"We will set aside our differences and reconcile, that is what's most important. His Majesty has given us a precious gift," said Sangay Ngedup, president of the PDP, whose four sisters are all married to the fourth king. "The pressure is on us now to nurture democracy. A great legacy of His Majesty the king is on our shoulders. His Majesty the king will always remain an inspiration."

Ngedup lost his race for an assembly seat, a sign that many voters were unhappy with his political record, despite his family ties to the monarchy.

The fifth king, who is 28, will remain commander in chief of the army and will be able to appoint five members to the upper house of parliament. Many Bhutanese said they hoped his opinions would continue to carry enormous weight.

"We do things a little differently here. We will never fall out of love with His Majesty," said Sonam Peldam, 29, who works for the national airline, referring to the fourth king.

Almost all stores were padlocked for the day because of the election. Signs said "Gone to vote." The cellphone network got bogged down because so many Bhutanese called candidates to wish them good luck.

In central Bhutan, buses loaded with voters traveling to remote mountain villages were stalled because gas stations ran out of fuel. "Suffering for suffrage," a headline in a local newspaper read, showing families camped on roadsides in the cold.

In rural areas, colorful tents with the country's dragon emblem were set up beside buckwheat farms. In the chilly, cloud-shrouded hills, people in traditional dress lined up peacefully to vote.

The elections were highly managed. Candidates were required to have at least a bachelor's degree, in a country where fewer than 5 percent hold such a qualification.

Mock elections were held last year to help voters get a feel for the process. Bhutanese journalists were trained this year on how to cover political campaigns. Instead of holding formal rallies, candidates went door-to-door, seeking support over cups of traditional butter tea and fresh walnuts.

"There has been no precedent for anything like this in Bhutan," said Tshering, the DPT spokesman. "We are all taking baby steps. But it's also really a wonderful moment in our nation."

At DPT headquarters Monday night, Tshering said there would not be any celebrations, despite the overwhelming victory.

"There's a lot of work to do," he said. "We have to take this very seriously. There is no time to rest now. We have to live up to His Majesty."

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