Thimpu: Immaculately turned out in traditional dress, the people of Bhutan formed long queues at polling stations on Monday to vote in the first parliamentary elections in the isolated Himalayan kingdom’s history.
Many said they were heartbroken to leave behind a century of absolute royal rule, but others are warming to the idea of democracy in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
“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, said she had been queuing with her friends since 7.30am, 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.
Bhutan’s two political parties say they never wanted democracy—the whole idea was thrust upon them by their much-loved fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who abdicated in favour of his son two years ago.
The fifth king, the 28-year-old Oxford-educated Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, urged all his people to exercise their franchise in a statement issued at the weekend, and the Bhutanese people do not ignore a royal command.
The capital Thimpu has been deserted in the past two days as many people returned to their villages to vote. The polling stations were packed on Monday morning.
“We are happy to have the power and the freedom to choose whichever party we want to vote for,” said 79-year-old, white-whiskered Karma Tshering, dressed in an orange-check gho, the knee-length robe with long socksall Bhutanese men have to wear.
Election commission officials said more than 60% of registered voters cast their ballots. Sandwiched between India and China, Bhutan might not quite be the Shangri-la of popular imagination, but there is a sense of harmony among its conservative, Buddhist majority. Some worry that the adversarial nature of democracy could undermine that.
“We feel democracy should not come in Bhutan. We still need 10 years for people to understand it,” said party worker Namgye Tshering. “When we went from house to house, from village to village, it was very hard to convince people.”
For now, democracy will be tightly controlled and political change gradual—the contest pits the current king’s uncle against one of his most trusted advisers. Both men have served as prime ministers under royal rule.
The parties’ manifestoes are almost identical, both based on “His Majesty’s vision” of gross national happiness, or GNH, the idea that economic growth be balanced by respect for traditions and the environment.
The People’s Democratic Party is led by Sangay Ngedup, whose four sisters are all married to the fourth king. His record as agriculture minister could win him rural voters.
The Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) is run by Jigmi Thinley, a man closely associated with the idea of GNH, who seems popular with young people in the capital.
The election is the latest step in Bhutan’s slow process of modernization and development. In 1960, the country had no roads and practically no schools or hospitals.
Today, education and health care are free, most villages have water and electricity, and life expectancy has risen to 66 years from less than 40.
But even Shangri-la hasits problems.
A booming industry selling hydro power to India creates wealth, but few jobs. Unemployment, crime and drug addiction are rising along with rural-urban migration, and a quarter of the population still lives below the poverty line.
Those issues form the core of both parties’ manifestos, but neither dares mention the country’s most intractable problem.
In 1990, tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis were forced out of Bhutan after protesting against the imposition of national dress and the closure of Nepali language schools. More than 100,000 now live in crowded camps inside Nepal.
A similar number still live in southern Bhutan, but exiled groups say tens of thousands have been denied identity cards—and thus voting rights—making “a mockery” of the election.
“The strategy is to depopulate people of Nepali origin from the country,” Narad Adhikari of the Druk National Congress, an exile group, said in Kakarvitta, on the India-Nepal border. “If they don’t have voting rights, their citizenship is in danger.”
Rebel groups, with recruits largely drawn from the refugee camps, have emerged in the past year and have threatened to disrupt the polls. They have detonated 11 bombs inside Bhutan this year, killing at least one person.
Bhutan sealed its borders with India at the weekend to keep out what it calls “anti-democratic militants” and the election commission said it was happy to report there had been no “untoward incidents” on Monday morning.
AFP contributed to this story.