Bhutan votes in first democratic elections
The isolated Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan yesterday held its first parliamentary elections aimed at transforming the country from absolute monarchy to constitutional democracy.
"Polling has begun in 15 districts with the response quite enthusiastic. This is a historic moment for all of us," Bhutan's chief election commissioner, Dasho Kunzang Wangdi, said by telephone from the capital Thimphu.
Elections are being held for the 25-member National Council, or upper house in parliament, although Monday's vote is for just 15 seats with another five due for polls in late January.
The king nominates five additional members to the council.
Results are expected late Monday or early Tuesday, Wangdi said.
Around two thirds of the 313,000 voters registered in the Buddhist kingdom of 700,000 people were eligible to vote Monday, he said.
Men in traditional colourful full-sleeved robes tied at the waist and women dressed in 'kiras', sarong-like wraps, lined up at polling stations in Sarpang, a district headquarters in southern Bhutan well before voting opened.
"It was an historic moment for us and so I came along with my husband and two sons early in the morning. We are now part of history having cast our votes," schoolteacher Pema Dorji told AFP.
A total of 41 candidates are in the fray in the 15 districts, Wangdi said. About 15,000 officials were manning more than 700 polling stations.
National Council candidates cannot be members of political parties unlike those serving in the 75-member National Assembly, or lower house, for which elections will be held in February or March.
The elections represent a dramatic shift of power in Bhutan orchestrated by former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck.
The monarch abdicated in December 2006 in favour of Oxford-educated son King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck as part of plans to introduce a constitution and hold direct elections -- a break with a century of royal rule.
But many Bhutanese view the looming changes with trepidation.
"To be frank we want the monarchy to continue. But with the king deciding to usher in democracy there is no option and so we are praying that this new system works well," said an elderly monk, who identified himself as Tshering.
Members of the royal family and those directly associated with religious institutions are not allowed to vote.