Democracy comes to kingdom of Bhutan
Bhutan brought down the curtain on a century of absolute monarchy yesterday, as the king's subjects went to the polls to elect the remote Himalayan nation's first democratic government.
The landmark vote was proposed by Bhutan's royal family to peacefully transform the small Buddhist kingdom, wedged in the mountains between massive neighbours India and China, into a constitutional monarchy.
But the country's young Oxford-educated sovereign, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, is expected to retain strong influence over the running of the country -- which has long boasted that its goal is "Gross National Happiness".
Despite the election excitement, many people here view the concept of democracy with some alarm, and the king made a last-minute pitch to his people at the weekend to try to get them to take part.
His appeal seemed to have worked, as an election commission official reported more than 60 percent turnout by early afternoon in the capital Thimphu, where long queues were seen at polling stations before voting closed.
"This is the first time I'm voting," said Lhamchum, a smiling 68-year-old housewife who turned up with nine family members to cast their ballots.
The switch to democracy is a major step for Bhutan, which is about the size of Switzerland and is one of the most insular countries on the planet.
Before the king's 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.
The educated elite have traditionally dominated politics, and indeed only university graduates were allowed to stand for the 47 seats in the new National Assembly.
The candidates represented two parties, the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) or Bhutan United Party and the People's Democratic Party (PDP), which campaigned on the slogan: "Service with Humility: We Walk the Talk."
Both parties promised to stick by the royal concept of Gross National Happiness, but also pledged to boost growth and develop roads and other infrastructure.
Election officials at polling stations handed out badges reading "I voted in the National Assembly Elections 2008."
"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.
Pema, a 28-year-old teacher, said the idea of democratic change was good news -- but still somewhat troubling.
"We are very happy. Sometimes we worry because it's 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 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.
An election commission spokesman said the vote counting had started. Preliminary results were expected later in the day, with final official results due on Tuesday.