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Bhutanese do king's bidding, embrace democracy

Impeccably attired in compulsory national dress, they turned out in huge numbers for Monday's first ever parliamentary poll in this reclusive Himalayan land.

world Updated: Mar 25, 2008 11:59 IST
Simon Denyer

When the King of Bhutan told his people to take power for themselves and embrace democracy, few of them wanted to listen at first. Yet that is exactly what they have done, with surprising enthusiasm.

Not only did they turn out in huge numbers, impeccably attired in compulsory national dress, for Monday's first ever parliamentary poll in this reclusive Himalayan land. They sent a clear message about what they do, and do not, want.

"It is people speaking their minds now," said Gopilal Acharya, editor of the private Bhutan Times newspaper. "It is very unique."

In a landslide election verdict, the mainly Buddhist Bhutanese showed they want a royalist government with plenty of experience of serving under the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, to preserve the peace and development they enjoyed during his rule.

What they do not appear to want is his many relatives by marriage to fill the void left by his departure from politics and the throne -- he abdicated in favour of his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in 2006.

"It is truly amazing," said Palden Tshering, spokesman for the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), which won 44 of the 47 seats up for grabs. "The people really have made the decision."

The present king's uncle Sangay Ngedup, the People's Democratic Party leader and brother of the fourth king's four wives, was unexpectedly trounced at the polls.

Analysts say he had a decent record in government and, as agriculture, health and education minister, had visited many remote villages in this tiny mountain kingdom, home to just 600,000 people.

But not only did his party win just three seats, Ngedup lost in his own Punakha constituency -- to a school teacher.

Gross national happiness

Ngedup's father rose from being an ordinary farmer to a massive landowner in the central Punakha valley after marrying off his four daughters to the country's fourth king.

Yet he is not a popular figure there, with villagers accusing him of bullying them into selling their land at knockdown rates.

This is a deeply traditional and conservative society, where conflict is seldom open and criticism of the elite very rare.

So it is not the sort of thing Ngedup's opponent would exploit directly. Yet when DPT candidate Tshering Penjor told voters he belonged to "the grassroots level", they clearly understood what he meant.

This was not a vote against the much-loved kings of Bhutan or a century of royal rule -- the present king and his father would have easily won any such contest, analysts and party workers say.

But it did reveal that Bhutan is more than a one-dimensional Shangri-la where the reigning philosophy of gross national happiness leaves everyone sporting a permanent grin.

Education and healthcare are free, most villages have water and electricity, and life expectancy has risen to 66 years from less than 40 a few decades ago.

But unemployment, crime and drug addiction are rising along with rural-urban migration, while a quarter of the population still lives below the poverty line. Nor is every government official as honest or humble as they would like you to believe.

The DPT's motto "growth with equity and justice" seems to have struck a chord.

Party leader, Jigmi Thinley, was a former prime minister under royal rule, a man closely associated with gross national happiness, the 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, and this also told in his favour.

"People want stability," said the DPT's Tshering. "It is all down to the experience of our party at the executive level."