Bhutan ready for historic parliamentary polls


Thimphu : The transition from a 100-year-old monarchy to democracy in Bhutan would begin Dec 30 with voting for the National Council, or upper house, which will make up the first phase of parliamentary elections.

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An estimated 300,000 voters are eligible to exercise their franchise in the Himalayan kingdom of 700,000 people to elect 20 members to the National Council. The king would nominate five additional members to the council.

“The process of parliamentary democracy has begun and we are all ready to conduct the polls,” said Kunzang Wangdi, Bhutan’s chief election commissioner.

Polls to the National Assembly or the lower house are scheduled for February 2008. Bhutan’s first elected prime minister will be from among the National Assembly members.

Candidates contesting the National Council do not belong to any political party unlike the National Assembly where elections are going to be fought among different political parties.

The National Assembly will have 75 members unlike the National Council that will have a strength of 25 – a member each for the 20 districts besides the five nominated by the king.

But with no candidates filing their nominations in five districts, elections would be held only in 15 districts Monday.

A total of 48 candidates are in the fray for Monday’s vote.

Election observers from India, the US, and Australia would be monitoring the polls and a five-member Thimphu-based UNDP team will represent the United Nations as poll observers.

Tight security measures have been adopted to ensure free and fair polls although the Bhutanese authorities have expressed fear over anti-India militants trying to sabotage the elections.

“We have asked our counterparts in Assam to intensify vigil along the border to ensure that no militants are able to enter our country or create trouble,” said Sangey Thinley, district magistrate of Bhutan’s Sarpang district.

Sarpang adjoins Assam and with Bhutan in 2003 evicting Assam militants from the kingdom there are fears that rebel groups from northeastern India might take revenge now.

“A decision has been taken by our home ministry to seal the border with India from 6 p.m. on Dec 30 until 6 a.m. Jan 1 to prevent the entry of unauthorised people,” Wangdi said.

Apart from Bhutan police, Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) soldiers have been already deployed in strength for the elections.

The king and other members of the royal family as well as Bhutan’s influential Buddhist clergy are exempted from participating in the electoral process. On Dec 16 last year, king Jigme Singhye Wangchuck had announced abdication in favour of his West-educated son, Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who was expected to usher in a parliamentary democracy in the country. Jigme Khesar has since assumed charge as Bhutan’s new king.

The former king had set the process in motion in 2001 for Bhutan’s transformation from an absolute monarch to a parliamentary democracy that led to a new constitution for the country.

The king would become head of state after the National Assembly polls next year, but parliament would have the power to impeach him by a two-thirds vote.