The people of Bhutan will have to wait for their first chance to vote after astrologers convinced their absolute monarch that the stars were stacked against democracy.

   

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck has been slowly pulling his isolated mountain state into the modern world and has declared his desire to relinquish some of his powers.

   

A draft constitution has been drawn up and elections were to have been held for the country's first parliament.

   

But royal astrologers believe that the stars will not be favourably placed until 2008 for the country, wedged between India and China, to take the plunge and abandon royal rule.

 

A palace official, who asked not to be named, said: "The king took their advice very seriously. That's the reason why he has decided to hold the first democratic elections in the kingdom in 2008."

   

A referendum on the new constitution will now be put to the country's 700,000 people early in 2008, and if it is passed elections will be held before the end of that year.

   

The draft keeps the king as the head of state, but parliament  - consisting of two houses, a 75-member National Assembly and a 25-member National Council - would have the power to impeach him with a two-thirds majority vote.

 

In 2001, Wangchuck, who became king in 1972 at the age of
16 after the death of his father, initiated the drafting of a
new constitution, a document he made public last March. 
   

In December he announced that he would also hand over the throne to his son, Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, in 2008.

 

Opposition

   

More than 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepali-origin living in refugee camps in eastern Nepal on the border with India have rejected the draft constitution and their leaders have vowed to defend their rights, by force if necessary.

   

"The king took their [astrologers] advice very seriously. That's the reason why he has decided to hold the first democratic elections in the kingdom in 2008"

    A palace official

In the early 1990s, the king stripped hundreds of ethnic Nepalis of their citizenship and threw them out of the country after they complained of racial discrimination and campaigned for democracy.

   

Tens of thousands joined them in exile and have been in refugee camps in forests that are also home to Maoist guerrillas near Nepal's border with India.

   

The refugees say they were ignored when officials prepared the draft constitution, and are campaigning for their right to return to the country and vote in elections, as well as constitutional protection for their customs and religion.

 

Bhutan has remained untouched by most modern influences, with a limited number of foreign visitors allowed each year.

 

Television arrived in 1999 and the internet a year later.

   

Whether the king will pay them as much attention as he has paid his astrologers remains to be seen, with talks over their fate stalled since 2003.