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Bhutan ready to shed monarchy for democracy – peacefully

By Syed Zarir Hussain


Thimphu : Tenzin Chhoeda, 42, is getting restless by the day and discusses animatedly with friends Bhutan's planned transition from monarchy to parliamentary democracy.

Like many others, he has plenty of doubts and fears.

"Will the change be good for the society?" "Maybe the present monarchial system is getting irrelevant." "Will democracy lead to chaos and anarchy in a country like Bhutan?"

The Bhutanese don't have an answer yet. Their confabulations often end abruptly without anyone able to fathom what the future holds to them.

But despite doubts in the minds of the 700,000 people in the Himalayan kingdom, the predominantly Buddhist nation of Bhutan is all set to stage the second and final phase of the staggered mock polls next week.

An estimated 283,506 people are eligible to vote.

Monday's exercise is part of the final dry run to familiarise people in the "Land of the Thunder Dragon" with how parliamentary democracy actually works.

"We are all geared up for the final round of dummy elections. We expect a fairly good turnout," Bhutan's Chief Election Commissioner Dasho Kunzang Wangdi told a visiting IANS correspondent in capital Thimphu.

The first or the primary round of mock polls was held April 21 in all the 47 parliamentary constituencies.

Real parliamentary elections are due to be held before June 2008, the culmination of a plan by former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck – who handed his crown to his young Oxford-educated son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in December – to change with the times and relinquish absolute rule.

Voting would begin at 9 a.m. (GMT + 0600 hrs) and end at 5 p.m. Monday. Counting of votes would begin soon after.

"We have already placed about 10,000 officials, including security personnel, for the elections in 873 polling centres spread over 47 parliamentary constituencies," Wangdi said.

The first round of the dummy polls involved voters choosing their favourite colour – the challengers being the Druk (Thunder Dragon) Blue Party, the Druk Green Party, the Druk Red Party and the Druk Yellow Party.

The Yellow Party that stood for 'ensuring unity of the country through preservation of traditions, culture, and values' emerged the winner in the dummy polls. The Red Party came second with a promise to work towards industrial development of Bhutan.

"In the first round people voted for political parties and in the final round Monday people would vote for candidates of the Yellow and the Red parties that emerged the top two winners in the primary round," Wangdi explained.

The candidates Monday would be students chosen randomly from high schools, belonging to the two fictitious parties – Yellow and Red. The same electoral procedure would be followed in the real elections next year.

"Nearly 51 percent polling was recorded in the primary round last month," Wangdi said.

Known as a Shangri-la of breathtaking beauty, landlocked Bhutan's transition to democracy began in 2001 when the then king handed over the powers of daily government to a council of ministers. He famously decided to make Bhutan's priority not its gross domestic product or GDP, but "gross national happiness".

A 34-point draft constitution unveiled in 2004 has also been sent to the Bhutanese people for their views ahead of the 2008 polls. The constitution will replace a 1953 royal decree giving the monarch absolute power. But people like Chhoeda are still confused about the proposed transition.

"I don't know what is good for Bhutan. I think we were all very happy with the present system," said Chhoeda, an entrepreneur dealing in handicrafts.

But those at the helm of affairs said Bhutan was ready to embrace democracy.

"We are ready for the change and we believe the vision of democracy envisaged by the former king would be good for the nation," the chief election commissioner said.