It is remarkable that a tiny Himalayan country — and a kingdom at that — turns out to be one of the best models for democracies in the world. The people of Bhutan have put their best foot forward on Monday by voting in the country’s first parliamentary polls. This marks the formal end of nearly a century of absolute monarchy in the secluded kingdom. In its roadmap for democratisation, Bhutan doesn’t seem to have closely followed any particular model. Instead, it has apparently chosen to develop a system most suited to its own people.
In 2001, King Jigme Singhye Wangchuck set the ball rolling for Bhutan’s transformation from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary democracy, which led to a new draft constitution. Subsequently, he abdicated in favour of his Western-educated son, Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who now becomes Head of State. That the new parliament will have the power to impeach him by a two-thirds vote indicates the king’s sincerity in ushering in democracy. Thanks to its small population, Bhutan is ideally suited for grassroots democracy. The draft constitution took this into account while outlining a representative democracy — right from village councils at the bottom to the National Assembly and National Council at the top. The Election Commission’s insistence on candidates having a bachelor’s degree and a crime-free background will likely ensure transparency and accountability in the new parliament’s functioning. Being one of the last few monarchies around, the democratic transition of Bhutan will be keenly watched by the rest of the world. What’s so extraordinary is that the king chose the democratic path voluntarily, and not to preempt the possibility of riots or overthrows as with other instances in history.
Bhutan doesn’t have any major law and order problems or political or economic unrest like, say, Nepal (where popular unrest has put paid to the monarchy). But then it’s not surprising for a ruler like Jigme Singhye — who famously prefers ‘gross national happiness’ to gross national product — to try to end his country’s isolation in a globalised world by opting for democracy and modernisation.