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Polls close in Bhutan parliamentary vote

Officials begin counting after more than 80 percent polling in Himalayan nation's second parliamentary elections.

Last Modified: 13 Jul 2013 13:20
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Nearly 382,000 people are eligible to elect a 47-member National Assembly in Saturday's vote [AP]

Tens of thousands of people in Bhutan have voted to elect a government in the Himalayan nation's second parliamentary elections.

Officials began counting the votes after polls closed, and the results were expected to be made public on Sunday, Chief Election Commissioner Kunzang Wangdi said on Saturday.

"Preliminary estimates indicate that more than 80 percent of the electorate has voted," Wangdi said.

Nearly 382,000 people were eligible to elect a 47-member National Assembly in Saturday's vote.

An earlier round held in May eliminated three of five political parties, leaving Bhutan's ruling Peace and Prosperity Party (DPT) and the main opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP) to contest Saturday's conclusive poll.

The remote nation of about 738,000 became a constitutional monarchy in 2007 and held its first election in 2008, after the king voluntarily reduced the monarchy's role in running the country.

Earlier, the Chief Election Commissioner said election authorities had set up 850 polling stations for the vote, including in hard-to-reach mountain villages.

Casting votes is a huge logistical challenge across the mountainous country, with officials trekking for up to seven days to set up polling stations.

Authorities had sealed off Bhutan's borders with neighbouring India, and the Bhutanese army had been assisting the country's small police force to ensure that the elections passed peacefully, Wangdi said.

The royalist DPT won the 2008 election by a landslide and garnered 45 percent of the votes in this year's primary round.

But recent gains by the PDP, which won 35 percent of the votes in May, have shaken up the contest.

Tight race

Campaigning by the 94 candidates has been subdued as they mostly participated in debates on state-run television rather than holding street rallies.

"The general perception is that it could be a neck-and-neck race, where every vote counts," said an editorial on the national Kuensel newspaper website on Friday, after a 48-hour campaigning blackout began.

DPT has won popularity with rural communities, which make up about 70 percent of the population, for improving their access to roads, mobile phone networks and electricity in the past five years.

But the election process has been stirred up by a recent straining of ties with Bhutan's neighbour and longtime ally India, which cut subsidies earlier in July on cooking gas and kerosene to the kingdom.

The rising fuel prices come as Bhutan has been struggling under a credit crunch and import restrictions, after running out of Indian rupee supplies last year on soaring demand.

"People blame the incumbent government for not addressing the economy which is in a very bad shape. This and the subsidy cut seem to be adding to their woes," political analyst Kencho Wangdi told the AFP news agency.

He also said the contest was "a very close call".

Bhutan is the only country in the world to pursue "Gross National Happiness", a development model that balances spiritual and mental well-being with financial growth.

Landlocked between China and India, Bhutan was long closed to the rest of the world.

It was the last country in the world to allow television in 1999, and high visitor fees have aimed to keep out mass tourism to shield the country's natural beauty and Buddhist culture.

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Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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