Thimphu: Bhutan was set to bring a century of absolute monarchy to an end Monday with the election of the remote Himalayan nation’s first democratic government.
The polls are the culmination of an initiative by Bhutan’s royal family to peacefully transform the small Buddhist kingdom, which is wedged in the mountains between India and China, into a constitutional monarchy.
The country’s young Oxford-educated King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck made a strong pitch at the weekend for his subjects, many of whom view the concept of democracy with a mixture of excitement and alarm, to take part.
Two parties are locked in a tight race and have both made similar promises to boost growth and develop roads and other infrastructure -- and to stick by the royal concept of prioritising “Gross National Happiness” rather than GDP.
Only university graduates have been allowed to stand for the 47 seats in the new National Assembly, who will be chosen from either the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) or the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) or Bhutan United Party.
“This is the first time I’m voting,” smiled Lhamchum, a 68-year-old housewife who had turned up with nine family members to vote in Thimphu, a capital city nestled in the mountains and devoid of traffic jams and high-rise buildings.
“We are very excited. It’s a very proud moment for us because of the way democracy has started. We didn’t have to fight for it,” said Tshewang Tashi, a 41-year-old civil servant.
Election officials handed out badges reading “I voted in the National Assembly Elections 2008.”
Bhutan, about the size of Switzerland, is one of the most insular countries on the planet.
Before the Wangchuck dynasty took over in 1907, the country was divided up into countless local fiefdoms. It had no roads, telephones or currency until the 1960s, and only allowed television in 1999.
The landlocked country, which calls itself “The Land of the Thunder Dragon”, was also never colonised. For centuries the Bhutanese relished their isolation, maintaining a barter economy and allowing few foreigners to visit.
Pema, a 28-year-old teacher who was voting, said the idea of democratic change was good news -- but still somewhat worrying.
“We are very happy. Sometimes we worry because its a new system. We don’t know if the prime minister will serve like the king,” she said.
Tsherap Dorji, 25, said Bhutan’s “sovereignty and security” would be safer if the king had remained in full control.
The election commission said it recorded 30% turnout in the first two hours of polling, and are hoping for 70% participation after a tepid response to mock polls held last year to familiarise voters with the process.
Polling stations were to close at 5:00 pm (1100 GMT) and preliminary results were expected late Monday. Final official results are to be declared on 25 March.
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.
After the assembly is elected, however, the king is expected to retain a strong influence over how the country is run.
The leader of the PDP, Sangay Ngedup, is a former two-time premier in the old royal government, and is the brother of the four sisters who are married to the former king.
The PDP’s campaign slogan is “Service with Humility: We Walk the Talk.”
The DPT leader, Jigmi Thinley, is also a former premier and close to the country’s educated elite, who dominate politics and the bureaucracy.