Bhutan’s brush with democracy begins with mock polls

By Syed Zarir Hussain


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Thimphu : The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan Monday made yet another historic leap towards democracy with voting for the final round of the mock polls beginning with the nation preparing to transform its 100-year-old monarchy to democracy.

"Polling has begun with the response quite enthusiastic in all the 47 parliamentary constituencies," Bhutan's chief election commissioner, Dasho Kunzang Wangdi, told IANS in capital Thimphu.

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

Voting began at 9 a.m. (GMT + 0600 hrs) and ends at 5 p.m. Counting of votes would begin soon after polling ends with results expected late in the night.

The two-phased dummy elections – the first round held on April 21 – was aimed at familiarizing voters and officials about election procedures ahead of the first general elections in 2008 when the Land of the Thunder Dragon shifts from monarchy to parliamentary democracy.

"The mock elections gave us a chance to test our readiness for the big polls next year," Wangdi said.

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.

The polls are being monitored by observers from India, Demmark, and the UN, besides an army of international media.

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 and around Thimphu much before voting opened.

"There is excitement everywhere, no matter even if it is a mock election," Tashi Dorji, an hotelier here said as he walks to a polling station to cast his vote.

Monks clad in maroon-robes and tonsured heads offered prayers at the Tashichhodzong monastery in Thimphu by lighting butter lamps as Bhutan marches towards democracy.

"From our hearts we want the monarchy to continue. But since the decision to usher in democracy has already been taken, we are praying so that nothing unforeseen happens in Bhutan," Lama Dorji, a 31-year-old monk at the monastery, said.

Tashichhodzong is the highest seat of Buddhism and also houses the king of Bhutan's throne.

Members of the royal family and those directly associated with religious institutions are not allowed to 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," Tashi Wangmo, a middle-aged homemaker, said.

An estimated 2,83,506 people are eligible to vote in the elections in 873 polling stations. The Election Commission estimated that some 400,000 people in the country are eligible to vote although just about 71 percent have registered their names so far in the electoral rolls.

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 that promises to work towards industrial development of Bhutan came second.

"In the first round people voted for the political parties and in the final round people are voting for candidates of the Yellow and the Red parties that emerged the top two winners in the primary round," Wangdi said.

The candidates – students chosen randomly from high schools, belong to the two fictitious parties – the Yellow and the Red.

The same electoral procedure would be followed in the real elections next year.