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Bhutan votes for stability

The Oxford-educated King Jigme Khesar Namgyel is expected to retain a strong influence over how the country is run even after the assembly is elected.

world Updated: Mar 25, 2008 01:51 IST

The people of Bhutan shocked even themselves on Monday, voting for stability and experience in their first ever parliamentary elections but overwhelmingly rejecting a party led by the king’s uncle.

This was not a vote against the much-loved king of Bhutan or a century of royal rule — many people had said they were reluctant to embrace democracy, and the winner of the elections, Jigmi Thinley, was himself a staunch royalist.

But the scale of his victory, winning 41 or 42 of the 47 seats on offer according to results collated in party offices, sent subtle messages which will reverberate around this deeply traditional and conservative land.

“It is truly amazing,” said Palden Tshering, spokesman for Thinley’s Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT). “The people really have made the decision.”

The present king’s uncle Sangay Ngedup even lost in his own constituency. If the king had to stand aside, the people of Bhutan seem to be saying, they are not sure they want his many relatives by marriage to take over.

“They have given the government to the public now,” said one voter who declined to be named, in a country still not used to criticism of the elite or political discourse.

“The youth must have chosen.”

The winner, Thinley, was a former prime minister under royal rule, a man closely associated with gross national happiness, the former fourth king’s idea that economic development be balanced by respect for traditions and the environment.

His team included two other former prime ministers and two ex-finance ministers. “People want stability,” said Tshering. “It is all down to the experience of our party at the executive level.

An hour before the polls closed at 5 pm, turnout was registered at over 72 per cent, according to the state-owned broadcaster, with 230,331 people casting their votes.

Early in the morning, long queues formed at polling stations near the capital Thimpu. Sad to see the king stand aside, many people said they were warming to the idea of democracy.

“I am happy, excited and worried all at the same time,” said 24-year-old office worker Chimi Lam, dressed in a green silk jacket and ankle-length skirt at a polling station at Batesa primary school overlooking the pine-clad Thimpu valley.

Tandin Wangmo, a 28-year-old school teacher, started queuing with her friends at 7.30 am, an hour and a half before polls opened. “We are very excited to vote because it is going to make a big difference to our country,” she said.