A Bhutanese man stands near election campaign posters featuring the photos of candidates at the main entrance of a college in Thimphu on Wednesday. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images)

It is harvest time in this village in western Bhutan, and residents are reaping an unusual crop: politicians making promises.

One politician vowed to pave the local road, now a rutted dirt track skirting a river, within three months. Another pledged to expand a nearby elementary school into a high school. A third warned against believing what the other two had said. 

Within families in the village, divisions have erupted over which party to support in this week’s elections, while partisan messages pop up daily on cellphones via a social media app called WeChat. 

“In terms of peace and quiet and harmony, the old system was much better,” said Chencho Dorji, 68, picking up a sheaf of rice and feeding it into a thresher.

A small Himalayan nation wedged between India and China, Bhutan is famed for its isolated location, stunning scenery and devotion to the principle of “Gross National Happiness,” which seeks to balance economic growth with other forms of contentment. 

But Bhutan’s young democracy, only a decade old, just received a heady dose of the unhappiness that comes with electoral politics. In the months leading up to Thursday’s national elections, the first in five years, politicians traded insults and made extravagant promises. Social media networks lit up with unproved allegations and fearmongering about Bhutan’s role in the world. 

It is enough to make some voters express a longing for the previous system — absolute monarchy under a beloved king. “I would love to go back,” said Karma Tenzin, 58, sitting in his apartment in the picturesque capital, Thimphu. “We would be more than happy.”

Bhutan is roughly twice the size of New Jersey and blanketed with mountains. In Bhutanese culture, where unity is prized, the advent of democracy has been a mixed blessing.

“We feel sad with all of these social divisions,” said Dorji Penjore, who heads the Center for Bhutan and Gross National Happiness Studies, a government think tank. Democracy in Bhutan is “going to work, but naturally there are going to be costs.”

Unusual path

If any country could figure out how to be a happy democracy, Bhutan would be it. Long before there were courses in happiness studies at U.S. universities and happiness curriculums in elementary schools, Bhutan led the way in placing national contentment at the heart of its policymaking. 

That philosophy helped Bhutan, a relatively poor country of 750,000 people, chart a unique course for its economic development. It accepts tourists but seeks to limit the flow with mandatory high fees; its constitution requires that at least 60 percent of its land remain forested, which has turned it into one of the only carbon-negative countries in the world.

Bhutan also had an unusual path toward democracy: Rather than voters rising up to fight for the right to elect their leaders, the country’s revered fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, initiated the process of drafting a democratic constitution. 

The way elections are structured here is atypical, too. Buddhist monks, nuns and other clergy are not allowed to vote, on the logic that they should remain outside politics. No campaigning is allowed after 6 p.m. And candidates found “defaming” their opponents or straying into certain sensitive topics — such as Bhutan’s oppressively close relationship with India — face fines or reprimands.

From the external signs, it was hard even to tell there were elections underway. There were no campaign posters, except on easily missed public notice boards; no buses plastered with candidates’ pictures; and nothing resembling a lawn sign. The slogans of the two parties — “Narrowing the gap” and “Progress with equity and justice” — were not exactly fervid. 


Phub Tshering, a candidate for parliament for the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party, talks with voters Sunday. (Joanna Slater/The Washington Post)

A child looks on as Phub Tshering campaigns Sunday in the village of Chunje, north of Paro. (Joanna Slater/The Washington Post)

But the campaign was intense, even if the mudslinging did not quite register on the U.S. scale. One party’s supporters filed a complaint with the Election Commission of Bhutan arguing that their opponents had defamed them by describing their leader as “all talk and no substance.” Another complaint alleged that one party’s supporters had described the other party as “anti-national.” In both cases, the commission levied fines. 

Like democracies throughout the world, Bhutan is wrestling with the effect of new technology on elections — a challenge that is particularly acute in a once traditional society that allowed television only in 1999. 

“The main challenge we face is social media,” said Sonam Tobgay, a senior official at the Election Commission. A particular concern: anonymous posts by “faceless people who create disharmony in the society.” 

Sitting on his desk on a recent afternoon was a letter from the government to Facebook asking it to suspend seven pages being used regularly by supporters of the two political parties contesting the elections to “spread false information and hate messages.”

Lotay Tshering, a urologist by training, is the president of the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), or Bhutan United Party, one of the two parties in Thursday’s final round of elections. At a campaign event this month, he was describing the insults lobbed at him on social media — including that he was a liar and cheater — when he started to choke up. 

“I was just struck by my emotions; I couldn’t continue,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “I’m pretty sure these [insults] are engineered by my opponents.”

Late Thursday, his party emerged victorious, according to provisional election results, sweeping 30 out of 47 seats in Bhutan’s National Assembly.

His opponent, Pema Gyamtsho, president of the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), or Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party, congratulated Lotay Tshering on his win. Pema Gyamtsho, too, had bemoaned the use of social media in the elections to fling insults under the cover of anonymity.


Like nearly all Bhutanese politicians, Phub Tshering wears a button bearing the image of the current king and his father — a sign of the esteem with which Bhutanese view their monarchs. (Joanna Slater/The Washington Post)

“I guess that is part of the game, but we can do without it in a small society,” Pema Gyamtsho said before the voting. “Everybody should worry about division and disunity.”

Political headaches

Those concerns were echoed on the streets of Thimphu, a capital city without a single stoplight where these days roofs are strewn with red chilies drying in the sun before being stored for winter. “These party workers come to our houses and stoke bad feelings,” said Dorji Pem, 66, in a neighborhood in the northern part of the city. “It’s so irritating it makes your head burst.”

Bhutan’s own happiness researchers say democracy is weighing on the country’s contentedness. Dorji Penjore, of the Center for Bhutan, noted that the last quinquennial survey of the nation, in 2015, showed a decrease in two of nine indicators used to measure Gross National Happiness — psychological well-being and community vitality. 

“Our intuition is democracy played a part,” he said. “We are assuming that it was due to party politics.”

He added that some aspects of democracy run up against elements of Bhutanese culture, which is deeply influenced by Buddhist precepts. The fact that candidates must flaunt their strengths and belittle their opponents is disconcerting for an older generation of Bhutanese, he said. But “in democracy, to be humble is to commit electoral suicide.”

Still, both Bhutanese voters and politicians are making the switch — and some are even enjoying it. On a recent afternoon, Phub Tshering, a DPT candidate for parliament, began a final round of door-to-door campaigning in Chunje, about 12 miles north of the town of Paro. 

He cheerfully stomped through fields of freshly shorn rice in the shadow of a jagged peak with flanks that rose in shades of green, ochre and slate toward a deep-blue sky. His brother, an unofficial campaign aide, handed out little pouches of areca nut wrapped in betel leaf, a mild stimulant that reddens the teeth when chewed.

Around the country, the most important issues were unemployment and health care. But in Chunje, voters were worried about a shortage of drinking water, finding ways to keep wild boars out of the rice fields and the poor condition of the village road.

The real problem, according to Phub Tshering, was that his opponent from the DNT had “told all these lies.” So many lies had been told, he said, that it was “time for a counterattack from my side.”

As he hopped into his car to set off for his next campaign stop, he called out a jaunty farewell. “Be happy!” 


A view of Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city. (Joanna Slater/The Washington Post)