Bhutan elects parliament for second time in its history
Amid growing pains, voters to pick 20-man non-party upper house, and later a lower house
Agence France-Presse in Thimphu
The tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan begins electing a new parliament today for only the second time in its history, five years after the Buddhist monarchy gave up its absolute power.
Voters will today choose members of the upper house National Council, a non-party body, then in the following weeks will decide which of five parties will form the next government in the National Assembly.
Since the start of this month, the 67 candidates for the 20 elected National Council seats - five more members will be appointed by King Jigme Khesar Wanchuk - have been holding debates and public meetings in their respective districts after a local selection process.
In the more remote areas, villagers have walked for hours, or even days, to attend the forums and question the candidates, and election staff have made similar long treks to set up and staff polling stations in hamlets inaccessible by road.
Election officials were making a fourth attempt yesterday to reach Lunana in the far north by means of Indian military helicopters after bad weather frustrated the first three tries. Today has been declared a public holiday and Bhutan's land borders will be closed for 24 hours over the election period.
The National Council, whose members have no party affiliation, monitors the actions of the government, reviews legislation and advises the king. It can also propose laws itself, provided they are not financial.
With an electorate of less than 400,000 and the use of electronic voting machines, results will be declared soon after the polls close, but will be no pointer to the National Assembly elections, whose dates have yet to be announced.
The centre-right Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) party of Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley has governed Bhutan since winning a landslide victory in 2008. It took 45 of the 47 seats in the house against the People's Democratic Party (PDP).
This time round three new parties are in the fray, two of them led by women, but there is little between them in their centre-left stance.
Opinion polls are banned in Bhutan and analysts are thin on the ground, but the DPT is not expected to repeat its massive triumph of 2008.
The nation known abroad for its high-end tourism and unique yardstick of Gross National Happiness has seen huge development under the DPT government, but a wide income gap, youth unemployment and delinquency, and urban migration are among the main issues expected to figure in the campaign.
The DPT also faces seeing key figures barred from standing, with the Home Affairs Minister Minjur Dorji and National Assembly Speaker Jigme Tshultim appealing against recent convictions for corruption.