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Landmark elections begin in Bhutan

Voters are set to elect the country's first democratic government and end the century-old absolute royal rule of Wangchuck dynasty.

world Updated: Mar 24, 2008 12:16 IST

Voting began in the small Himalayan nation of Bhutan on Monday in elections that will select the country's first democratic government and mark the end of absolute royal rule, an AFP reporter said.

The polls are the culmination of an initiative by Bhutan's royal family to transform the remote nation of 6,70,000 people, which is wedged in the mountains between India and China, into a constitutional monarchy.

Voters are choosing 47 members of a new lower house, with just two parties, the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) or Bhutan United Party, locked in a tight race for power.

The two parties have made similar promises to boost growth and develop roads and other infrastructure and to stick by the country's focus on "Gross National Happiness", making it a tough choice for many voters.

At a polling booth in the centre of Thimphu, a line of 200 people dressed in the traditional national robes queued before voting opened at 9:00am (0300 GMT).

"This is the first time I'm voting," said Lhamchum, a 68-year-old housewife who had turned up with nine family members.

"It's a development for my country and I'm happy about it," she said.

The country's young Oxford-educated King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck made a strong pitch at the weekend for his subjects -- many of whom have been reluctant to bring in democracy -- to take part in the landmark event.

Officials said they expected more than 70 per cent turnout after tepid responses in last year's mock polls to familiarise voters with the process, and recent elections for the upper house.

Polling stations were to close at 5:00 pm (1100 GMT) and preliminary results were expected within hours. Final official results are to be declared on Tuesday.

The kingdom's move to democracy began in 2001 when former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck handed over daily government to a council of ministers and finally stepped down in favour of his son in late 2006.

Bhutan, about the size of Switzerland, is one of the most insular countries on earth. It had no roads, telephones or currency until the 1960s, and only allowed television in 1999.

The landlocked country was never colonised and for centuries the Bhutanese relished their independence and isolation from the outside world, maintaining a barter economy and allowing few foreigners to visit.