Thimphu, Bhutan – The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan, sandwiched between India and China, will vote in its second-ever parliamentary elections on April 23.
An absolute monarchy for more than a century, the landlocked country transitioned to become a parliamentary democracy in 2008, at the king’s behest. Nevertheless, the monarchy remains widely popular here.
Known as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon”, Bhutan – with a population of fewer than 800,000 people – has long done things its own way. The country takes pride in retaining its traditional Buddhist culture, and television and internet access were banned until 1999. Instead of tracking progress by measuring the gross domestic product – a metric tracking the value of goods and services bought in an economy – Bhutan uses an index named Gross National Happiness to measure the country’s well-being.
On Tuesday, voters will choose members of the National Council, the upper house of parliament, followed by two rounds of elections for the National Assembly, the lower house. The new government is expected to be in office by July.
Dasho Kunzang Wangdo, the chief election commissioner, said 380,099 Bhutanese were registered to vote at 850 polling booths set up across the country, some using electronic voting machines from India. Sixty-seven candidates are competing.
“I am hopeful that there will be a good turnout of voters,” he said. “However, I have to say that people in Bhutan are not happy with democracy … They were happier under the rule of the king. This democracy was imposed on them by the throne.”
Despite this, voter turnout was high in 2008, at above 80 percent, and the figure is likely to be similarly high this time around.
Nitasha Kaul, a London-based writer and expert on democracy in Bhutan, said the country’s political culture is shifting. “Democracy is gradually bringing about a democratic culture – something that needs adjusting to, in a country that has hitherto had little tolerance for an overtly oppositional culture … There is now a somewhat increasing tolerance of dissent, both in the print media and in the online forums.”
Meanwhile, she said, the monarchy “remains a vital force that underlies the coherence of the national identity”.
These polls may be more competitive than those in 2008, as three new parties have entered the fray. In addition to the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa Party (DPT) headed by Prime Minister Jigme Thinley and the opposition People’s Democratic Party, voters can also choose from the Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party, Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa, and Druk Chirwang Tshogpa – the only party to be headed by a woman. However, the DPT is expected to win, as it did in the 2008 elections.
Sonam Dorji, a 28-year-old taxi driver here in the capital, Thimphu, said he plans on voting for the ruling DPT for a second time, despite some doubts.
“Last time, people voted without any knowledge of what is happening … that is the reason that most of the people ended up voting for one party. The ruling party hasn’t done much good, as we had expected,” he said, though conceded they had improved access to electricity and roads in remote areas of the country.
“We need to give this government another chance as it was their first time,” said Dorji. “And maybe in their second term, with more experience, they will fare better.”
A 20-year-old policeman, Chumatashe Wang Rinzin, seconded this sentiment. “The government provided us with roads and electricity in areas which we never thought will get. They also gave different benefit schemes for the poor people of Bhutan.”
Meanwhile, the opposition parties are banking on the votes of urban Bhutanese, where the change has been less visible.
Although many Bhutanese are devout Buddhists, active efforts have been made to keep religion out of politics. A six-month ban on all public religious activities has been effect from the start of the year, and the nation’s constitution states that “religion shall remain above politics”. Monks are not allowed to vote.
Professor Dibyesh Anand of London’s Westminster University says Bhutan “wants to prevent politicians from misusing faith and influencing voters”, given the negative experiences other South Asian countries have had when mixing religion and politics.
On the streets of Thimphu, the traditional and the modern coexist. American hip-hop music, Bollywood songs and Korean television shows compete with movies and songs in Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language, for the attention of the youth.
While expressing faith in the country’s political transition, Kaul says Bhutan’s urban youth face real problems such as “a vicious cycle of low aspirations, lack of role models they can relate to, inadequate employment opportunities, and high levels of anomie and angst as manifest in a problem of drug abuse and street violence”.
How politicians tackle these challenges, she says, will shape the future of Bhutan.
Follow Showkat Shafi on Twitter: @ShowkatShafi