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Royalists sweep landmark Bhutan vote

(CNN) — Voters in the secluded Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan became the world’s newest democracy Monday when the nation held its first elections and ended more than 100 years of royal rule.

Voters had a choice of two political parties from which to pick 47 members of a lower house. According to preliminary results, the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party trounced its opponents, the People’s Democratic Party, winning all but three seats, state media said.

Elections officials estimated about 80 percent of the country’s 318,000 registered voters cast ballots — a surprisingly large turnout for a populace that had largely said they preferred to remain under the rule of their revered king.

Bhutanese had seen the sometimes disastrous results of the democratic experiment in neighboring Bangladesh and Nepal, where elected governments have been ousted by force.

When pot is not broken, why it is mended? That’s what I mean, one citizen, Dorji Rinchen, said. Meaning, there was nothing wrong when we lived with king. We are happy, everybody is happy and country was prospering.

Both parties had offered similar promises, analysts said. Foremost among them was the allegiance to continue the king’s blueprint for Gross National Happiness — to maintain development, protect the environment, preserve the culture and ensure good government.

The parliamentary elections are intended to transform Bhutan from an absolute monarchy into a country where people can exercise newfound power at the ballot box. Watch commentary on the elections

The road toward transition was paved in December 2006 when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated the throne to his son and promised to usher in democracy.

He told them that there is no guarantee you will always have a good king, said Tashi Dorji, editor of the privately run Bhutan Observer. He said that this is the right time to embrace democracy — when the country has no problems, when it’s in a period of peace and tranquility.

The former king’s son, the Oxford-educated Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, will remain head of state and will likely retain much influence. But the National Assembly will be able to remove him with a two-thirds majority.

It’s not that the people of Bhutan don’t want democracy. They want monarchy more, Dorji said. Monarchy has been a success story in this country. We’ve always had very good kings.

Bhutan, wedged between China and India, is a Buddhist kingdom about half the size of the U.S. state of Indiana. For centuries, the landlocked country remained isolated from the rest of the world — both due to its geography and deliberate policy.

The country had no electricity, paved roads, cars, telephones or postal service until the 1960s. It allowed access to television and the Internet only in 1999.

Two years later, the country began its move toward democracy when the former king handed over day-to-day operations to a council of ministers.

Because election rules stipulate that voters could only cast ballots in the place of their birth, the capital Thimphu was deserted. The city, which is home to about 70,000, had been reduced to less than 10,000 voters. Wearing their traditional national robes, many lined up in orderly gender-segregated lines outside polling stations before voting began at 9 am.

Elsewhere in the country, the election commission allowed private cars to operate as taxis to shuttle voters back and forth.

Officials said they expected turnout of more than 70 percent, but all is not harmonious in Shangri-La, however.

To create a homogeneous culture and retain its unique identity, Bhutan stripped minority ethnic Nepalis of Bhutanese citizenship and forced them into exile, according to the independent non-governmental group Human Rights Watch.

More than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, expelled from Bhutan, have been warehoused in seven overcrowded camps in southeastern Nepal since 1991.

Many have taken up arms and joined a violent Maoist rebellion, the group said. Bhutan and Nepal are separated by a strip of land belonging to India.

A series of four blasts ripped through Bhutan just days after the country announced plans for its general elections in January. Police blamed militant groups operating out of Nepal for the explosions.

I.P. Adhikari, president of the Association of Press Freedom Activists – Bhutan, said he did not regard Monday’s vote as being truly democratic. The exile group says it is working for freedom of speech in Bhutan.

There are many people who were arrested or not allowed to take part in the election due to their link with the people living in exile, Adhikari said from Kathmandu, Nepal. Many people have been denied voter ID cards because Bhutan regards them as anti-national because of their links with those in exile.

Change will continue to sweep the nation as it continues its slow engagement with the world. Next, the country plans to join the World Trade Organization.

As long as the beloved king gives his blessings to the transformations, some said, Bhutanese will embrace them with open arms.

I feel happy, said Ugyen Tenzin, who owns a restaurant and a tourism business in the capital city. The king has never been wrong. He’s always taken us in the right direction.
Royalists sweep landmark Bhutan vote – found here.

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March 25, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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