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Bhutan steps towards democracy in first real poll

world Updated: Dec 31, 2007 10:57 IST
Biswajyoti Das
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Bhutanese began voting on Monday to elect members to a new upper house of parliament for the first time, a step towards democracy after a century of absolute monarchy.

The tiny Himalayan kingdom has been preparing for democracy since former monarch, king Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decided to hand power to an elected government, even as many of his citizens said they were quite happy with the way things were.

Monday's vote is only the first step. More important polls are expected to take place in February and March with elections to the lower house, when newly formed political parties will be able to take part.

Queues of voters formed in the town of Deothang as the polls opened at 8 am (0200 GMT), all dressed, as is compulsory, in traditional Bhutanese costume -- gowns for the men, long dresses for the women, some of whom were carrying babies.

"I pressed the button on the computer and I'm very happy to cast my vote," said Sonam Wangda, a 35-year-old farmer, one of the country's 312,817 registered voters. He was referring to the electronic voting machines being used.

The country has temporarily closed its borders as authorities fear Nepal's former Maoist rebels could cause trouble in support of ethnic Nepalis living in Bhutan, who complain of discrimination.

Tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis fled Bhutan or were expelled in 1991 for protesting against discrimination and demanding democracy.

Around 15,000 election officials, including security personnel, were deployed for the day.

The National Council, as it will be known, will have 25 members. Five members will be chosen by the present monarch, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, the 27-year-old Oxford graduate who took over from his father in 2006.

Bhutanese will vote for the remaining 20. But five districts failed to nominate even a single candidate in time for Monday's polls. They will hope to have addressed this by January 29, when the polls in those districts have been rescheduled.

There are 43 candidates contesting in the other 15 districts in Monday's elections.