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Bhutan holds historic parliamentary elections

By Syed Zarir Hussain, IANS

Sarpang (Bhutan) : The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan Monday made a historic leap towards democracy with voting for the first ever parliamentary elections, marking the beginning of an end to the nation’s 100-year-old monarchy.

“Polling has ended and the response was quite enthusiastic. This is a historic moment for all of us,” Bhutan’s chief election commissioner, Dasho Kunzang Wangdi, said by telephone from capital Thimphu.

Elections were held for the 25-member National Council or upper house in parliament. Monday’s vote is for just 15 seats as no nominations were filed in five districts.

“A total of 41 candidates are in the fray in the 15 districts with about 15,000 poll officials engaged to conduct the elections in 723 polling stations,” Wangdi said.

Men in colourful ‘ghos’, full-sleeved robes tied at the waist, and women dressed in ‘kiras’, sarong-like wraps, lined up at polling stations in Sarpang, a district headquarter in southern Bhutan, much before voting opened. Sarpang borders India’s northeastern state of Assam.

Monks clad in maroon-robes and tonsured heads offered prayers at a monastery in Sarpang by lighting butter lamps as Bhutan marched towards democracy.

“To be frank we want the monarchy to continue. But with the king deciding to usher in democracy there is no option and so we are praying that this new system works well in Bhutan,” an elderly monk who identified himself as Tshering said.

Members of the royal family and those directly associated with religious institutions are not allowed to vote.

Bhutan has 20 districts and each would have a member in the National Council. The Election Commission would announce fresh dates for elections to the remaining five districts by seeking nominations once again.The king would nominate five members to the council.

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.

A national holiday was declared in this Shangri-la of jaw-dropping beauty for the vote.

Counting of votes would begin Tuesday.

An estimated 270,000 voters in the 15 districts were eligible to exercise their franchise in the Buddhist kingdom of 700,000 people.

“It was a historic moment for us and so I came along with my husband and two sons early in the morning. We are now part of history having cast our votes,” Pema Dorji, a schoolteacher, told IANS.

The polls were monitored by observers from India, US, and Australia, besides a five-member UNDP team.

“Voting ended peacefully and it was a great beginning for democracy,” said Wangdi.

Candidates who contested the National Council were eminent personalities from the districts rather than representing a political party unlike the National Assembly where elections are to be fought among different political parties.

The National Assembly will have 75 members.

The elections climax a plan by former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who handed his crown to his young Oxford-educated son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in December last year, to change with the times and relinquish absolute rule.

Jigme Khesar has since assumed charge as the new king.

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

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.

Despite people coming out to vote, the mood is one of scepticism.

“We are coming to vote to honour the wish of the former king who wanted the change. But we don’t think democracy is good for Bhutan as politics would open the doors of corruption and might set in anarchy,” Kinley Wangchuk, a middle-aged grocer, said.