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Reluctant Bhutan heads for democracy

Chicago Tribune

THINLEYGANG, Bhutan — In this isolated Himalayan kingdom of dragon and demon fables, where increases in Gross National Happiness are the measure of progress, it is fair to say no one has been yearning for democracy — except the king.

A little over a year ago, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck announced he was abdicating his throne and decreed that his remote Buddhist kingdom should become a constitutional democracy.

Putting power in the people's hands, he said, was a sign of his confidence in them, and would give the tiny mountain nation sandwiched between India and China long-term stability and a stronger position in a modern, globalizing world. Bhutan's fate, he said, should not be left in the hands of one man chosen by birth, not merit.

Bhutan's people did not cheer.

"It was a bit of a shock," said Lynpo Sonam Tobgye, the chief justice of Bhutan's supreme court and the reluctant lead author of the country's new constitution. In a region of South Asia where democracy has often brought as much strife as peace and progress, "politics is not much venerated," he said.

But in Bhutan, an order from the country's much-beloved king is an order. So Bhutan's more than 600,000 people have swallowed hard, thrown together political parties and tried to set aside their deep-seated tradition of civility and unity long enough to plunge into the murky waters of politics.

On Monday, they will cast the first votes of their lives for the country's first democratically elected parliament, completing Bhutan's transition from hereditary monarchy to democratic constitutional monarchy. Under Bhutan's new system, the king's son will take over as head of state but will now share power with an elected legislature with the right to remove him from office.

"At first it was very hard to understand about politics," said Ugyen, 56, a rural worker with the People's Democratic Party, one of Bhutan's two new political parties.

Bhutan is not a place looking for change. Under the king, who launched the nation's push for Gross National Happiness — a way of measuring progress in terms of sustainable development and social contentment instead of income — the country has managed to institute nearly universal free health care and education. Three-quarters of its blue pine and hemlock forest remains intact. So does much of its traditional culture, despite the introduction over the past decade of television and Internet cafes. Sales of its abundant hydroelectric power to India have helped give the country a comfortable income.

Campaigning, at the start, was mostly a polite affair. The separation of church and state has also proved a bit confusing for a nation where ancient city fortresses have long housed both monks and administrators.

In recent weeks, though, campaigners seem finally to have gotten comfortable with the confrontational nature of politics. The national election commission has been flooded with complaints of vote-buying, often simply because a cup of tea changed hands, and candidates are openly trading charges of carpetbagging and making false promises.

Reluctant Bhutan heads for democracy 03/22/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 23, 2008 9:43pm]
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