Happiness in democracy as Bhutan takes its first vote

Absolute rule ends for Himalayan nation as Jigmi Thinley, proponent of gross national happiness, wins election

IMMACULATELY turned out in traditional dress, the people of Bhutan formed long queues at polling stations yesterday to vote in the first parliamentary elections in the history of the isolated Himalayan kingdom.

In a country that has made the pursuit of happiness an official government policy, it was perhaps no surprise that the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party swept the historic vote.

It was seen as a victory for stability and experience. While a party led by the uncle of Bhutan's young king was overwhelmingly rejected, the winner of the elections, Jigmi Thinley, is himself a staunch royalist.

Many people said yesterday they were heartbroken to leave behind a century of absolute royal rule, but others warmed to the idea of democracy in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

"I am happy, excited and worried all at the same time," said 24-year-old office worker Chimi Lam.

Tandin Wangmo, 28, a teacher, queued an hour and a half before polls opened. "We are very excited to vote because it is going to make a big difference to our country," she said.

Bhutan's two political parties have never said they wanted democracy. The whole idea was thrust upon them by their much-loved fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who abdicated in favour of his son.

The fifth king, the 28-year-old Oxford-educated Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, urged all people to exercise their votes.

The capital, Thimpu, was deserted as people returned to their villages to vote. Polling stations were packed yesterday morning. There are about 300,000 registered voters.

Sandwiched between India and China, Bhutan may not be the "Shangri-la" of popular imagination, but there is a sense of harmony among its conservative, Buddhist majority.

The election is the latest step in Bhutan's slow modernisation. In 1960, it had no roads and practically no schools or hospitals. Today, there is free education and healthcare, and most villages have water and electricity. But while Bhutan sells hydro power to India, unemployment, crime and drug addiction are rising and a quarter of its people live below the poverty line.

Mr Thinley won a stunning 44 of the 47 seats on offer. His opponent, the present king's uncle Sangay Ngedup, even lost in his own constituency.

A former prime minister under royal rule, Mr Thinley was closely associated with "gross national happiness", the fourth king's idea that economic development be balanced by respect for traditions and the environment.

"People want stability," said Palden Tshering, a spokesman for Mr Thinley's DPT. "It is all down to the experience of our party at the executive level.

The DPT's motto, "Growth with equity and justice", may also have gone down well.

Change comes slowly in the happy kingdom

HIGH in the Himalayas, Bhutan is a landlocked country sandwiched between India and China, occupying about 18,000 square miles.

The country claims about 600,000 people, but some unofficial estimates put the figure as high as 2.3 million. About three-quarters are Buddhist and a quarter Hindu.

Bhutan has been largely closed to outsiders. The internet and television did not arrive until 1999 and only 20,000 tourists are allowed in each year. In the 1980s the country adopted its Gross National Happiness policies, which has produced a smoking ban, strict limits on deforestation and a dress code.

Bhutan's 28-year-old King Jigme Keshar Namgyal Wangchuck will remain head of state after the elections, but the new parliament will have the power to impeach him.

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