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Reluctant Bhutans Vote in Country's First-Ever National Election

After being ruled by kings for more than a century, citizens in the Himalayan nation of Bhutan are voting Monday in the country's first-ever democratic election. Raymond Thibodeaux files this report for VOA from the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu.

Thousands of Bhutanese lined up at polling stations in Bhutan's capital to take part in the democratic exercise.

Choden Dorji, a 29-year-old administrator for Bhutan's education ministry, says she is both excited and uneasy about Bhutan's move toward democracy.

"We should be cautious. But it is good also," she said. "We really have to be careful on this day. So many things can happen, so many things."

Still, voters in Bhutan appear eager to cast their ballots. Within the first two hours of polling, more than a third of the country's eligible 318,000 voters had turned up to cast their ballots.

Kunzang Wangdi is Bhutan's election commissioner. He says he is pleased with the turnout so far, which he expects to top 70 percent.

"It is a history-making event today because after the poll day is closed, tomorrow we declare the result," he said. "Then we can confirm that we are a democratic constitutional monarchy. So we have left one legacy behind and moving into a new era."

Voters are choosing between candidates from Bhutan's two main parties, the People's Democratic Party, or PDP, and the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, or DPT, which in the Bhutanese language translates to the Bhutan Prosperity Party.

There are no major ideological differences between the two parties. Both want more roads, more schools, more health clinics, more trade and more openness with the rest of the world. Both are running on a pledge to pursue what Bhutanese call the "Gross National Happiness," a theory of civic success that combines environmental and cultural preservation with sustainable economic growth.

Among the contenders for Bhutan's top post are Jigmi Thinley, leader of the DPT, and his opponent, Sangay Ngedup, the PDP leader. Both have served twice as prime minister under Bhutan's current Wangchuck dynasty.

Ngedup says he does not envy the next prime minister, whether it is him or anyone else. He says it is a huge

responsibility in a country where the current king is much-loved and revered.

"I can say very frankly that there is no way in the world that I or my party can ever fill the big shoes of His Majesty, the King. He will always remain an inspiration for parties, party leaders and candidates," he said. "We will always be judged by the high standards of leadership given by His Majesty, the King."

Most government offices and many businesses were closed for the voting. Bhutan also closed its border with neighboring India for the day.

So far, the voting has been peaceful and orderly.

Bhutan's election commission is expected to announce an unofficial tally after the polls close. Final election results are expected by early Tuesday.

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