Unwilling voters urge king to retain absolute monarchy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2007, 12:00am

Tshering Pem looked a little bewildered as she stood in line at a polling booth in Thimphu, capital of the secluded Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. It was her first time voting and she had no great desire to do so. 'I want the king to rule,' said the 35-year-old housewife, as she fiddled with her voting card.

Pem was one of about 125,000 people in Bhutan - around half of all registered voters - who turned out to vote on Saturday in mock elections ahead of the real thing next year.

The pretend elections, designed to introduce the Bhutanese to the novel notion of suffrage, are the most significant step in a process of modernisation introduced by Bhutan's monarchy. After ruling with unfettered power for more than 100 years, it's now imposing democracy upon its subjects - although many of the citizens say they don't want it.

Even the chief election commissioner, Kunzang Wangdi, expressed misgivings as he waited to cast his vote at a polling booth set up in the ground of Motilang High School in Thimphu. 'Personally, I would prefer to keep the king's rule,' he said. 'But even a good monarchy is seen as an autocratic government.'

When the results were announced on Saturday night, Bhutan appeared to have voted for the status quo, insofar as the elections allowed them to do so. Four imaginary parties were competing - Druk Red (for industrial development), Druk Green (for ecological sustainability), Druk Blue (justice and accountability) and Druk Yellow (traditional values). The Yellow Party, with 44 per cent of the vote and flying the colour of the king's ceremonial scarf, emerged as the overwhelming winner.

It's an odd notion, a king struggling to give away his power, but then Bhutan, a small and mountainous Buddhist kingdom squeezed between India and China, is one of the most eccentric countries in the world.

Druk Yul - the Land of the Thunder Dragon, so called after its violent storms - has been ruled by a hereditary monarchy since 1907. Archery is the country's national sport, every house is built in a handsome, centuries-old style, with beautifully carved wooden windows, and virtually everyone dresses in national costume - though often accessorised with trainers and baseball cap.

It wasn't until 1999 that the kingdom introduced television sets and only a year later the internet made its debut. Bhutan is also the only country in the world where smoking is banned.

Perhaps most curious of all is Bhutan's promotion of Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an alternative development measure to Gross National Product (GNP).

The term was coined by Bhutan's last king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, in the 1970s and has since found global fame. 'It's an idea that's catching on across the world, the importance of things like a sense of community,' said Nicholas Rosellini, the United Nations resident co-ordinator in Bhutan. 'But here in Bhutan, where there is genuine contentment, people want to know how democracy will fit in. That's why these mock elections are such a sensible step. I think any country moving towards democracy should consider holding them.'

It was King Wangchuk who launched Bhutan's democratisation process in the late 90s. In 1998 he ceded some powers to a national assembly. In 2001, the assembly chairman was made prime minister.

Last December, King Wangchuk handed the throne to his 26-year-old, Oxford-educated son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, to oversee the transition.

Part of the reason why the Bhutanese seem so unwilling to embrace change is that they say their last king was an excellent ruler. In the past 40 years, under his leadership, Bhutan has flourished, building free schools and hospitals and roads and pushing up life expectancy from 40 to 66.

However, life is still tough for many. While huge demand from India has given Bhutan a booming hydropower sector, there is practically no other industry, apart from tourism. More than 60 per cent of Bhutan's 635,000 people survive on subsistence-level farming.

But it's in the countryside that opposition seems strongest to the modern concept of democracy.

'We have been completely happy under the king,' beamed 80-year-old Thimlay, a retired farmer dressed in a tattered black and white checked gho, or robe, as he walked along a dusty track towards his two-hectare farm in Zhanglakha, 26km from Thimphu. 'I'm afraid that if power is given to good people, they will become bad.'

'I don't even have a voting card,' said his 67-year-old wife Shetsa, whose wide smile exposed teeth stained a deep, betal nut red. 'But we'll walk along with our neighbours to see what happens.'

With such opposition from his subjects, it seems surprising that the last king should have decided to introduce democracy. Some analysts have speculated that the move was made to pre-empt an uprising against the monarchy such as that in Nepal last year.

But Karma Ura, director of the Centre for Urban Studies in Thimphu, says Bhutan will flourish under democracy. He's just completed a major survey of GNH in Bhutan, by means of a questionnaire so detailed it takes two days for someone to complete. When the results are published, he plans to create a 'happiness index' to measure levels of well-being and compare it to that of other countries.

'Thanks to the king, more people in Bhutan are being educated now,' he said. 'They're able to contribute, to make sensible decisions and I think the king sees this as his greatest achievement - to let people decide for themselves'.

Not all the people are being allowed to decide for themselves, however. After moves to preserve Bhutan's Buddhist identity in the 80s, more than 100,000 Hindu Nepalis, who had arrived in southern Bhutan in the late 19th century, fled or were forced to leave.

Today, more than one-sixth of Bhutan's population languish in UN refugee camps in Nepal unable to vote, even by proxy.