Tuesday, March 25, 2008

King leads Bhutan to democracy

A pro-King party has won a landslide victory in Bhutan’s first ever democratic election. The election has ended a century of royal rule and the new governing party has pledged to follow the policies of the absolute monarchy it is replacing. The Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, or Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party has won 44 out of 47 seats with the People's Democratic Party taking the remaining three seats. Both parties say they will follow the government's latest five-year plan, known as "his majesty's vision."

His majesty’s vision includes a measure unique to Bhutan, the gross national happiness policy, an all-encompassing political philosophy that seeks to balance material progress with spiritual well-being. Proclaimed by Bhutan’s king in 1972 as a standard for the country’s well-being, Gross National Happiness (GNH) has been proposed as a model for other countries as well. According to Bhutanese Home Minister Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley the four pillars of GNH are: socioeconomic development, environmental preservation, cultural promotion, and good governance. “GNH recognizes that happiness can be realized as a societal goal,” Thinley said. “It cannot be left as an individualized goal”.

The democratic process was started by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who abdicated in favour of his son Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck in December 2006 with an order to end absolute monarchy. Associated Press described the election as taking place in “the first country in history where a king had to convince his people that democracy was a good idea.” With an average income of US$1,400, twice that of India's, and nearly all its people had access to schools and hospitals many have questioned whether the election was necessary at all.

Nevertheless the turnout was high with nearly 80 percent of the population voting by order of the King. The 28 year old monarch will remain head of state after the elections and he has probably staved off potential antimonarchist rumblings and helped the palace retain its credibility as well as influence. Both parties were forbidden from addressing “national security” issues, including the expulsion of tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis in the early 1990s.

The country’s first elected Prime Minister is likely to be Peace and Prosperity Party leader Jigmi Thinley. The US educated Thinley has twice been premier under the previous royal governments and has been one of the architects of the GNH policy. With little policy difference between the two parties, some analysts believe Thinley's focus on happiness may have swung the election in his party's favour. The country's election body will certify the victory on 5 April, after which the party will form a government.

After many years of reclusiveness, Bhutan is rapidly opening up to the world. Both the Internet and television came to the remote Himalayan kingdom just nine years ago. With a population of just 600,000 the country has successfully modernised while protecting its unique culture and environment. Its economic boom is based on hydro-power and a strictly enforced tourist industry that allows in only 20,000 foreigners a year and charges them $200 a day.

Bhutan has been keeping a close eye on the problems of neighbouring Tibet. After Tibet was invaded by China in 1950, Bhutan realised that its policy of isolation could lead to the same fate. It launched a gradual process of opening up and modernisation culminated with the elections this week. Kinley Dorji, managing director of the state-owned Kuensel newspaper, said that sandwiched between India and China had left Bhutan feeling vulnerable. "Our strategy was to hide up in the mountains," he said. "That worked until 1960." That was a year after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet. Bhutan wanted to avoid Tibet’s mistake of having few diplomatic friends and saddled with a feudal society that could give China the excuse to "liberate" it. That process has reached its logical conclusion with Bhutan launching its own liberation.

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