Bhutan Continues Dry Run Towards Democracy

There is anxiety in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, where "gross national happiness" is the metric of success. Changes are occurring swiftly since King Jigme Singye Wangchuck suddenly retired last year, handing power to his 26-year-old son who will be formally crowned next year. The senior monarch also declared that Bhutan's kings should no longer have absolute power, and has nudged his somewhat reluctant subjects towards a constitutional monarchy and an elected national legislature. VOA's Steve Herman reports from Thimpu, Bhutan, on the latest steps in the "Land of the Thunder Dragon's" journey to democracy.

Bhutan is in the process of holding its first general election, sort of. It is actually a mock election, a two-part practice exercise that began last month when voters chose among four shades of "Thunder Dragon" political parties:  red, green, yellow and blue. Yellow and red were the top vote-getters, and stand-in candidates - in this case high school students from the two fictional parties - will be on the ballots for the practice run-off vote next Monday.

The mock elections are aimed at preparing the people of this landlocked mountainous country for the real thing, and the population of fewer than 700,000 people is taking the exercise seriously.

The first real vote, later this year, will send 20 non-partisan candidates to the National Council, the upper house of the new parliament. The king will nominate five additional "eminent persons" to the Council.  Next year, the public will elect 47 party-affiliated politicians to the National Assembly, the lower house, where they will serve five-year terms.

Chief Election Commissioner Dasho Kunzang Wangdi says the mock elections are necessary to teach Bhutanese how the democratic process works, and to convince them that the government is sincere about holding free and fair elections.

"Till that time, I think, probably people did not really believe it," he said.  "It may be coming, it may not be so. Now they know for sure that the elections are going to happen.  Therefore there is enthusiasm being generated in terms of better voter registration, and people trying to understand more about democracy and how effectively they can participate."

A democracy needs not only voters, but candidates.  Initially it was feared there might be a dearth of potential lawmakers in a country with no tradition of politicking. Now, at least three parties are forming, and prospective candidates are emerging.

One of them is Lekey Dorji, whose only experience with elections was being voted chief prefect of his school in ninth grade. Dorji went on to earn an engineering degree from the University of Kansas in the United States. After graduate studies in Britain, he returned home to work for the national phone company, and then became an Internet entrepreneur in the capital, Thimpu.

Dorji is running for the seat in his home district, a rural area where electricity is virtually non-existent and roads few and far between. He is promising development for his constituents, who are mainly farmers.

"If I'm elected, I would be ashamed if I don't deliver on those promises," he said.  "Of course, you will also not be promising things that you can't really deliver. But I'm quite positive that through [the] democratic process that we will be able to help our people in the constituencies. These are the people who really need help."

But there is also skepticism about democracy here.  Even the elections chief acknowledges that democracy has an image problem, perhaps because elections in neighboring democracies are a rough-and-tumble exercise, and many of those elected are of dubious repute.

"They think democracy means the player from wealth and muscle power, all is sort of battle between vested interests," he added.

Candidate Dorji also realizes his career change is fraught with challenges in a nation where most people strongly express contentment with the hereditary monarchy that has ruled for the past 100 years.

"Through the media and all, we always hear about politicians being greedy, politicians being bad," added candidate Dorji.  "They are quite anxious. They have enjoyed the prosperity, the happiness, under the kings. This is an irreversible process our king has initiated, we just can't go back."

One of the first duties of the novice legislators will be formally approving the draft constitution, another departure for the kingdom. The document calls for kings to retire as head of state at age 65, recognizes Buddhism as the "spiritual heritage" of Bhutan, and ensures that a minimum of 60 percent of the country's total land will forever remain under forest cover.

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syriai
November 26, 2015 5:21 AM
Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs