Tuesday, April 24, 2007
J. Adam Huggins for The New York Times
The people of the tiny Buddhist nation of Bhutan undertook a sort of fire drill for democracy over the weekend and set down an important marker on their carefully ordered journey toward modernity. In Thimphu, the nation's capital, they lined up to cast their votes in the country's first round of mock elections
At a polling station in Thimphu, Bhutanese voted Sunday in the first round of a mock election for Parliament. The real election is next year.
Election officials tested a voting machine at a polling station in Thimphu before the polls opened to the public for voting.
King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who recently announced his plan to abdicate, has ordered parliamentary elections next year. In preparation for the real thing, more than 125,000 citizens lined up at voting booths across the country to take part in mock elections.
The king’s call for elections, along with a constitution that will introduce multiparty democracy, forestalls any ferment for freedom, from inside or outside the country.
Line Up and Pick a Dragon: Bhutan Learns to Vote
By SOMINI SENGUPTA
THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 22 — Can “Desperate Housewives,” free trade and multiparty elections deliver happiness?
The people of Bhutan, the tiny Buddhist nation once known as the hermit kingdom of the Himalayas, pondered these questions this weekend as they undertook a sort of fire drill for democracy and set down an important marker on their carefully ordered journey toward modernity.
King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who recently announced his plan to abdicate, has ordered parliamentary elections next year.
In preparation for the real thing, more than 125,000 citizens, many with more than a little ambivalence, lined up at voting booths across the country on Saturday to take part in mock elections.
They chose among four “dummy” political parties: Druk Blue, Druk Green, Druk Red and Druk Yellow. The Druk, or thunder dragon, is the national symbol.
Having once sealed itself off from the world, the lair of the Druk has cautiously and deliberately begun opening up. Television, including foreign cable stations, was introduced only in 1999 (and more recently featured an episode of “Desperate Housewives” on election day). The Internet came soon after.
There are no McDonald’s golden arches poking out from the blue pine forests yet, though the influence of global consumer culture can be glimpsed in the Pepe jeans on young men and a convenience store here that calls itself 8-Eleven.
The government is considering joining the World Trade Organization. Foreign tourists are allowed to come in somewhat larger numbers than before, though still chaperoned from one high-priced resort to another. “A cautious approach,” Prime Minister Khandu Wangchuck called it. In an interview here on Friday, he added: “We were conscious of the fact that interaction with the world would only benefit us. We have had no reason to put the brakes on.”
Elections, he said, have been embraced, albeit reluctantly, by the citizenry because the king wanted them.
“The objectives are to ensure national security, national sovereignty, well-being and prosperity, which will lead to gross national happiness also,” the prime minister said. “His Majesty believes this is the best form of government, and the people of Bhutan are ready to launch this.”
How the strange lures of modernity will affect the gross national happiness, the unusual yardstick the king invented to measure his nation’s progress, is a matter of uncertainty and wonder in this country.
Gross national happiness includes criteria like equity, good government and harmony with nature. It apparently does not include harmony with the 100,000 ethnic Nepalis who fled Bhutan after a royal crackdown on their agitation for democratic rights and have languished since 1990 in refugee camps in Nepal.
In any case, the king’s call for elections, along with a constitution that will introduce multiparty democracy, forestalls any ferment for freedom, from inside or outside the country.
But all that is in its infancy. For the moment at least, Bhutan does not resemble a democracy, particularly compared with other countries in the region. Barely two political parties have been formed. It is far from having an outspoken free press or an active civil society. Criticism of government policy is rare, except from abroad.
Not surprisingly, ethnic Nepali dissidents have denounced the elections as a ploy to deflect international attention from the refugee crisis. The government prefers to call them illegal immigrants who had to be forced out because they threatened to swamp a small, fragile country of about 700,000 people.
The Bhutanese monarchy turns 100 this year, and the king apparently decided that this was an auspicious time to further reduce its power. The national elections next year are part of a process that began nearly a decade ago, when the king introduced nonparty elections for Parliament.
Next, day-to-day administration was handed over to the cabinet. The proposed constitution would remove the king as head of the government, set a mandatory retirement age of 65 for the ruler and empower an elected Parliament to oust him from the throne by a two-thirds vote.
Last December, after more than 30 years in power, the current king announced that he was abdicating in favor of his 26-year-old son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.
The prospect of self-government seemed to send shivers down many spines here. “Why have politicians?” people wanted to know, expressing doubts about the results of democracy in neighboring countries. Isn’t the king always supposed to know what is best for his people and guide them accordingly?
“I’m a little bit skeptical,” Sonam Wangmo, 38, said as she waited in line Saturday to cast her vote in a neighborhood school with calla lilies blooming in the garden. “I’m not sure whether it will work, or whether it will be better for our country.”
Two long lines formed on the school grounds, one for men, one for women, quiet and well-disciplined, and with only a few grumbles despite waits of up to an hour or more just to reach the voting booth.
Unusually for this part of the world, Bhutan is a very orderly place, where traffic rules are closely obeyed and the color of a shawl denotes social rank. Native dress is mandatory at work and at school. For men that means a knee-length robe, for women a short jacket and long wraparound skirt.
With sustained government spending on health and education in the last several decades, there have been remarkable gains in basic social indicators, from reducing child mortality to increasing school enrollment.
Bhutan remains a poor country, heavily reliant on foreign aid and with little industry. But it is set to reap the latest bounty from the one natural resource that it has in plenty: the water that comes rushing down from the Himalayas, which it has harnessed, with Indian help, to create hydroelectric power. Most of that power will be exported to India.
What clocks are to Switzerland, water can be for Bhutan. According to the World Bank, the country could see up to 14 percent annual economic growth in the coming years, though it will not necessarily create many jobs.
“The going is good,” said Tshering Tobgay, 42, a former civil servant who is working with a former cabinet minister to start the People’s Democratic Party. “We want more of the same.”
This is one reason, he said, that even would-be politicians like himself find it hard to sell their message to the citizenry. “We are not starting a party because we have an ideology,” he said. “We’re not starting a party because we have a vision for a better Bhutan. We are starting a party because the king has ordered us.”
He sat on the patio of a bar, cupping his beer can in a napkin, because it was Friday and alcohol sales were prohibited on the day before the election. “It’s a big compliment to the king that no one’s very enthusiastic.”
Another patron in the bar, Kesang Dorji, 36, said he was puzzled by the royal order to vote, but intended to obey. “We have to stand fast to the wisdom of our monarch,” he said. “He knows what’s best for us. Any normal person would think, ‘Why this, when everything is O.K.?’ ”
Holding on to the way things are seems to have been Bhutan’s choice in the mock elections. Each of the Druk parties presented a platform. Druk Blue promised to fight corruption and extend free health care and education. Druk Green stood for environment-friendly development. Druk Red promised industrialization. And Druk Yellow asked: “Do you believe in the preservation and promotion of our rich cultural heritage and tradition? Vote for Druk Yellow Party.”
On Sunday, Druk Yellow emerged as the hands-down winner, with 44 percent of the vote, according to the Election Commission. Next month it takes on Druk Red, which won about 20 percent, in a mock runoff.
Tilak Pokharel contributed reporting from Katmandu, Nepal.
Prime Minister Khandu Wangchuk with a portrait of the king. Elections, the prime minister said, have been embraced, albeit reluctantly, by the citizenry because the king wanted them.
Long lines formed, one for men, one for women, quiet and well-disciplined, and with only a few grumbles despite waits of up to an hour or more just to reach the voting booth.
J. Adam Huggins for The New York Times
Tshering Tobgay, who is starting the People's Democratic Party, said: "We are not starting a party because we have an ideology. We’re not starting a party because we have a vision for a better Bhutan. We are starting a party because the king has ordered us."