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Bhutan Steps Toward Democracy with Vote for National Council


Thousands of people in Bhutan went to the polls Monday to elect an upper house of parliament for the first time. As Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi, the vote represents the country's first step toward democracy after a century of monarchic rule.

Men and women dressed in traditional robes lined up outside polling booths Monday to cast ballots to choose Bhutan's first-ever National Council.

The 25-member Council will serve as an upper house after parliament is elected in February and March. Voters are to choose 20 members of the Council. The other five will be nominated by the King.

The remote Himalayan country has been governed by a monarchy for a century. But in 2005, the former King announced his decision to sign away power to the people, and set in motion the transition to democracy.

In preparation, Bhutan held two rounds of mock elections earlier in the year.

Chief Election Commissioner Kunzang Wangdi says Monday's vote shows that people are beginning to grasp the democratic process.

"Everything seems to be working very well," Wangdi said. "Most of the people are fully in picture as to what's taking place, and they realize the importance of that."

International observers supervised Monday's election.

But, Monday's votes were cast to elect only 15 of the 20 representatives, because five districts failed to nominate candidates in time for the poll. Elections in those districts will be held later in January.

The problem was not unexpected in a country where people are unfamiliar with the concept of choosing their own representatives and most appear content with the monarchy.

The process lacked the fanfare that accompanies elections in other democracies. Instead of the usual campaign rallies and speeches, voters in many places learned about the candidates by reading their resumes in town centers.

Bhutan has made it compulsory for candidates to have university degrees, and a "crime-free background." Chief Election Commissioner Wangdi explains why.

"We are having for the first time a real legislative body," Wangdi said. "This is a body which will make laws for the country, which
will also approve the important policies for the country, and also it will be a body from which the government will be appointed, therefore the people whom we elect for these positions definitely have to be more qualified."

Bhutan is currently ruled by the former King's son, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. He took over after his father abdicated in 2006.

For decades, Bhutan's monarchy kept the country isolated from the outside world, limiting foreign visitors and allowing television only in 1999. The former King's decision to usher in democracy initially received a lukewarm response.

Many people are still apprehensive about the changes that lie ahead.

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