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Bhutanese elects National Council in move toward democracy

Bhutanese elects National Council in move toward democracy

Thousands of Bhutanese went to the polls Monday to elect a National Council, the final stage before democratic elections that will end nearly 100 years of absolute monarchy in the secluded Himalayan country.
The vote caps a whirlwind year of transformation for the tiny kingdom since the monarch declared in December 2006 he was abdicating in favor of his 26-year-old son and ushering in democracy.
In this small trading town near the border with India, dozens of people dressed in their green, blue and red checked traditional robes _ knee length for the men and ankle-length for the women _ lined up at a local school to cast their votes. They were electing members of the National Council, a small group of eminent Bhutanese, which will act as an upper house after parliament is elected in February.
Despite Bhutan holding two mock elections in 2007 to ensure people understood the democratic process, Monday's vote was a new experience for many.
"I did not have much idea about democracy, but we have had educational programs on radio and television so now I know," said Sagay Zangmo, a 32-year-old woman who runs a small business in the town. "Here I am, the first vote in my life," she said.
More than 300,000 people were expected to vote Monday for 15 of the council's 20 elected representatives. Five more will be elected at the end of January _ a delay caused by a lack of candidates _ and five others will be appointed by the king, said Kunzang Wangdi, Bhutan's chief election commissioner.
Wangdi said election officials were still tallying votes Monday night, but he declared the election a success.
"We are happy with the turnout of voters," he said. "It went off peacefully without any hitch."
There were 43 candidates for the 15 spots in Monday's vote. However, not everyone was eligible to stand for election.
Only people over 25 years of age with no party affiliation could run. "Aside from the age, a candidate must possess a bachelor's degree from a university and must have a crime-free background," Wangdi told The Associated Press from the capital Thimphu.
The council will act as conduit between the king and parliament on matters of national security and sovereignty
The elections lacked the fanfare common in other countries. There were no election posters or campaigners in the town. Voters who wanted to know more about the candidates _ in this district an actor, a school teacher and a comedian _ went to a special notice board in the town center where the candidates posted their picture and a short resume.
As in the mock elections in 2007, international observers from India, the United States, Australia and the United Nations were monitoring the polls to ensure a smooth process, said Wangdi.
Bhutan also shut its borders with India and put its small army on alert to make sure there were no disruptions, he said.
The path toward parliamentary elections started when former King Jigme Singhye Wangchuck announced he was handing over power to his Oxford-educated son.
Before abdicating he circulated a draft constitution that would end almost 100 years of monarchical rule. Under the plan, which comes into effect after the 2008 elections, the king will become head of state, but parliament will have the power to impeach him by a two-thirds vote.
His successor and son, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, has supervised the transition over the last year, which for many Bhutanese has been an abrupt change.
For decades, Bhutan's monarchs tried to shield the country _ sandwiched between India and China _ from the outside world. International media were allowed into the country only in 1974 and television only arrived in 1999.
Only 6,000 foreign tourists are allowed to visit per year, restricted to carefully supervised tours to protect Bhutan's unique environment and culture.
Smoking is forbidden, and mountain-climbing is banned to preserve the pristine forests that cover most of the country.
Even the size of the country's population is unknown _ estimates put it anywhere between 700,000 and 2.2 million people.
While many are apprehensive about the changes that will come to their insular world, few say anything openly except praise for their king.
"It is a great opportunity for the Bhutanese people to be, themselves, part of the country's governance and I have fond remembrances of our great kings," said 52-year-old local businessman Sonam Drukpa after he cast his vote.


Updated : 2021-07-31 14:47 GMT+08:00