Himalayan hermits vote for gross national happiness

CAN Desperate Housewives, free trade and multi-party elections deliver happiness? The people of Bhutan, the tiny Buddhist nation once known as the hermit kingdom of the Himalayas, pondered these questions last weekend as they undertook a kind of fire drill for democracy and modernity.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who recently announced his plan to abdicate, has ordered parliamentary elections next year. In preparation for the real thing, more than 125,000 citizens, many with more than a little ambivalence, lined up at voting booths across the country to take part in mock elections.

They chose among four "dummy" political parties: Druk Blue, Druk Green, Druk Red and Druk Yellow. The Druk, or thunder dragon, is the national symbol.

Having once sealed itself off from the world, the lair of the Druk has cautiously and deliberately begun opening up. Television, including foreign cable stations, was allowed only in 1999 (and more recently featured an episode of Desperate Housewives on election day). The internet came soon after.

There are no McDonald's golden arches poking out from the blue pine forests, yet. However, the influence of global consumer culture can be glimpsed in the Pepe jeans on young men and a corner shop that calls itself 8-Eleven.

The government is considering joining the World Trade Organisation. Foreign tourists are allowed to come in somewhat larger numbers than before, though still chaperoned from one high-priced resort to another. "A cautious approach," Prime Minister Khandu Wangchuck calls it. "We were conscious of the fact that interaction with the world would only benefit us. We have had no reason to put the brakes on."

Elections, he said, have been embraced, albeit reluctantly, by the citizenry because the king wanted them. "The objectives are to ensure national security, national sovereignty, well-being and prosperity, which will lead to gross national happiness also," he said.

Gross national happiness includes criteria such as equity, good governance and harmony with nature.

The king's call for elections, along with a constitution that will introduce multiparty democracy, forestalls any ferment for freedom, from inside or outside the country.

For the moment at least, Bhutan does not resemble a democracy, particularly compared with other countries in the region. Barely two political parties have been formed. It is far from having an outspoken free press or an active civil society. Criticism of government policy is rare, except from abroad.

The Bhutanese monarchy turns 100 this year, and the king apparently decided that this was an auspicious time to further reduce its power. The national elections next year are part of a process that began nearly a decade ago, when the king introduced non-party elections for Parliament.

Next, day-to-day governance was handed over to the cabinet. The proposed constitution would remove the king as head of the government, set a mandatory retirement age of 65 for the ruler and empower an elected Parliament to oust him from the throne by a two-thirds vote.

Last December, after more than 30 years in power, the current king announced that he was abdicating in favour of his 26-year-old son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.

Holding on to the way things are seems to have been Bhutan's choice in the mock elections. Each of the Druk parties presented a platform. Druk Blue promised to fight corruption and extend free health care and education. Druk Green stood for environment-friendly development. Druk Red promised industrialisation. And Druk Yellow asked: "Do you believe in the preservation and promotion of our rich cultural heritage and tradition? Vote for Druk Yellow Party."

Druk Yellow emerged as the hands-down winner, with 44% of the vote, according to the Election Commission. This weekend it takes on Druk Red, which won about 20%, in a mock runoff.

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