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Bhutan's tryst with democracy begins

Bhutan's election commission said some 400,000 voters would be eligible to exercise their franchise in the 2008 general elections.

india Updated: Jan 02, 2007 11:59 IST
Indo-Asian News Service
Indo-Asian News Service

Bhutan's tryst with democracy has begun with elected representatives questioning royal commands even before the Himalayan kingdom formally shifts from absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy.

The ongoing session of the National Assembly or parliament saw unprecedented ruckus by representatives over refusal by the chief election commissioner to get their endorsement before the controversial Election Bill becomes legislation.

Bhutan's national newspaper Kuensel and its national broadcaster Bhutan Broadcasting Service reported rifts in their parliament over the Election Bill in the two-week session, which ends later this week.

"It was important for the assembly to discuss and endorse the Election Bill before the general elections starts in 2008.

There should be a base for the new government in 2008," an unnamed people's representative from the monastic town of Wangduephodrang was quoted as saying in parliament by Kuensel.

Bhutan's Chief Election Commissioner Dasho Kunzang Wangdi, however, refused to accept their demands.

"The Election Bills were distributed to the members for information and awareness in preparation for the elections in 2008 and not for discussion as per His Majesty the fourth Druk Gyalpo's (former King Jigme Singhye Wangchuck) command," Wangdi told parliament.

"Since the people of Bhutan have already endorsed the draft constitution, the endorsement of the draft constitution or the elections bills by the present assembly is not necessary."

The Election Bill that contains 23 chapters was drafted last year after the former king in December 2005 announced general elections in 2008 to formally mark the transformation of the largely Buddhist nation of about 600,000 people to parliamentary democracy.

The former king abdicated the throne last month in favour of his eldest son, 26-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, before Bhutan adopted a constitution and elected a prime minister in 2008.

The major bone of contention in the Election Bill is about provisions to debar a candidate from contesting the first general elections without a university degree.

At least six to seven representatives voiced angry protests inside parliament saying the provisions making it mandatory for candidates to contest the 2008 elections with a university degree was unjust.

"The education criteria would take away rights of the people. There will not be mass representation," said Zhamling Dorji, Bhutan's deputy speaker.

Home Minister Lyonpo Jigmi Y Thinley also rejected demands for getting an approval from the present National Assembly for the Election Bill to become law.

"Bhutan has not yet become a democracy and the present National Assembly has no authority to endorse any bills that is related to the parliament in 2008," the minister told parliament.

"Whatever power people have today had been decentralised by His Majesty the fourth Druk Gyalpo.

His Majesty the King has the sole authority to approve or finalise any rule or laws."

The new Oxford-educated king calmed tempers by assuring the elected representatives a discussion on the Election Bill separately.

"While it is very important to discuss issues, it must be done not with a view to claim oneself as good and right and another as wrong and bad," the king said.

Bhutan's election commission said some 400,000 voters would be eligible to exercise their franchise in the 2008 elections to choose the first democratically elected government.

The transition began five years ago 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.

First Published: Jan 02, 2007 11:59 IST