Bhutan: The insular kingdom of Bhutan stands poised to become the world’s newest democracy on Monday with historic polls ordered by its revered royal family to end their reign.
The tiny Buddhist state wedged between the Himalayas of India and China will elect members for a lower house, ending the century-old absolute rule by the hugely popular Wangchuk dynasty.
The country’s young Oxford-educated King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk made a forceful last-minute appeal on Saturday to his subjects -- some of whom were initially reluctant to bring in democracy -- to cast their vote.
“As you approach the duty of voting at the elections that will bring democracy, do so with pride and confidence of a people that have achieved so much,” the king said in a statement published in the nation’s newspapers.
“First and foremost, you must vote. Every single person must exercise his or her franchise,” said the king -- the fifth ruler in the Wangchuck dynasty, which came to power in 1907.
Signs of democracy began in 2001
The kingdom’s path to democracy began in 2001, when former king Jigme Singye Wangchuk handed over daily government to a council of ministers, and finally stepped down in favour of his son in late 2006.
Since then, both father and son have travelled tirelessly around the state to explain to its 670,000 people why the nation should embrace democracy.
“The former king said, ‘today you have a good king, but what if you have a bad king tomorrow´,” said Kinley Dorji, managing director of the national Kuensel newspaper. “The argument was irrefutable.”
Despite the royal family’s efforts at persuasion, concerns persist about the sweeping changes ahead for the country, which closely guards its traditions and identity. It allowed television only in 1999, permits few foreigners and bans cigarette sales.
Guarded tradition fiercely
People are expected to wear traditional clothes for office and public functions and the country has strict rules to protect its environment, architecture and heritage.
“We’ve always been stable under the kings” but people worry about life without the monarchy in charge, said Gopilal Acharya, editor of the bi-weekly private newspaper Bhutan Times.
Some Bhutanese draw parallels with the country’s giant neighbour India, with which the country has deep cultural and economic ties, and which faces several insurgencies and rampant corruption.
Other neighbours, Nepal and Bangladesh, are also torn with strife. But most Bhutanese said these concerns would not keep them away from the ballot box.
People want to be part of history by casting votes
“My sister is coming all the way from Islamabad just to vote. It will cost her $2,500 because she will have to change a flight and spend two days in hotel,” said Dilu Giri, senior manager of private hotel The Druk but she said she wants to be a part of history.
Streets in the capital city of Thimphu were deserted and shops were closed on the weekend as thousands headed for their remote, mountainous constituencies to vote. “Buses have been booked in advance for voters and we have worked out plans with transport authorities,” said chief election commissioner Kunzang Wangdi, adding he expected a very high turnout.
Two Indian air force helicopters dropped election guidelines to inaccessible mountain locations, while mules and horses carried voting apparatus to ballot stations, the election commission said.
Both political parties have similar manifestos
The two political parties -- People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) or Bhutan United Party -- have similar manifestos promising growth and better infrastructure.
Both are led by two-time former prime ministers and are in a tight race for 47 seats. The DPT boasts five former ministers, while the PDP is counting on its pool of doctors, engineers and health and education experts to present a younger, more energetic image.
The PDP is headed by Sangay Ngedup, who is the brother of the former king’s four queens -- all sisters. His regal background is seen as a disadvantage by some commentators who believe if he wins it will be seen by the outside world as the king handing over power to another member of the royal family.
But Ngedup rejects such assertions. “I’m a citizen of this country and have equal rights to contest the election,” Ngedup told AFP as he campaigned in his Punakha constituency, 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Thimphu.
Security has been tightened for the polls after a series of small blasts blamed on communist rebels operating from Nepal over the past few months, officials say.
Tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalese fled from southern Bhutan to Nepal after a cultural campaign to encourage the use of Bhutan’s national language and dress, and have been living in refugee camps.