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Enthusiastic turnout in historic dummy polls

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan creates history with its citizens voting for the first time in a mock parliamentary polls, an exercise carried out as a dress rehearsal for the election scheduled for 2008.

world Updated: Apr 21, 2007 15:25 IST

Moderate to brisk polling was recorded till midday on Saturday in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan where people voted in the country's first "dummy" elections designed as a warm up for democracy.

"The response has been quite encouraging with people lining up at polling stations. There is nothing to complain about and we are happy with the turnout," Dasho Kunzang Wangdi, Bhutan's chief election commissioner, told the agency by telephone from capital Thimphu.

The two-phased mock polls Saturday and May 28 are aimed at familiarising voters and officials about election procedures ahead of the first elections in 2008 when Bhutan shifts from monarchy to parliamentary democracy. An estimated 400,000 people were eligible to vote in 47 parliamentary constituencies.

Real elections for a new parliament are due to be held in 2008, the culmination of a plan by former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck - who handed his crown to his young Oxford-educated son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in December - to change with the times and relinquish absolute rule.

"Going by the trend we expect the overall turnout to be about 70 percent by the time voting closes," Wangdi said.

Men in colourful "khos", full-sleeved robes tied at the waist, and women dressed in "kiras", sarong-like wraps lined up at polling stations in the Bhutanese town of Samdrup Jongkhar on the border with India, 370 km southeast of Thimphu.

Voting began at 9 a.m. (0300 GMT), with election observers from the UN and neighbouring India monitoring the proceedings.

The mock parties taking part in the elections are the Druk (Thunder Dragon) Blue Party, Druk Green Party, Druk Red Party and Druk Yellow Party.

"I was among the first to vote and the feeling was one of excitement. I know what we did today was historic," said Pema Dorjee, a poultry farm owner.

Monks clad in maroon-robes and sporting tonsured heads offered prayers at monasteries by lighting butter lamps as Bhutan marches towards democracy.

"This is a good sign for the country and we hope democracy ushers in all round prosperity," young Buddhist monk Den Lama said.

Members of the royal family and those directly associated with religious institutions are not allowed to vote.

The 26-year-old king is camping in his ancestral village of Tungkar in Lhuntse district of northeastern Bhutan, an area that takes two days drive from Thimphu.

"The king is there to encourage the people to vote and personally witness the first democratic process," the chief election commissioner said.

While many of the young Bhutanese are excited about the vote, some of the older people are still confused.

"We don't know if politics is good for Bhutan. We still have faith in the monarchy," said P. Dendup, a 65-year-old retired government official.

In the final round of polls May 28, people would vote for candidates of the two top parties that emerge victorious in the first round.

"The two parties which get the highest number of votes Saturday will go on to contest the final round," Wangdi said of the process, intended to mirror the real polls next year.

Former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck in December abdicated the throne in favour of his eldest son.

The transition began in 2001 when the former king handed over the powers of daily government to a council of ministers and empowered the National Assembly to force a royal abdication if three-quarters of its membership backed the motion.

Bhutan in 2004 unveiled a 34-point constitution and the same was sent to some 530,000 citizens for their views. The constitution is to be ratified after a referendum this year. Once adopted, it will replace a royal decree of 1953 giving the monarch absolute power.