Bhutanese face subtle choices in first election

PUNAKHA, Bhutan (Reuters) - The people of Bhutan face some subtle choices in their first parliamentary elections on Monday, choices that underline the changes democracy is bringing to this traditional Himalayan kingdom.

A Bhutanese girl stands in front of election campaign posters in Punakha March 22, 2008. The tiny and deeply traditional Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan takes a slightly nervous step into the modern world on Monday when it holds the first parliamentary elections in its history. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

The biggest decision of all was imposed on the mainly Buddhist Bhutanese -- their fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, went against the popular will by introducing democracy after a century of royal rule.

Democracy’s adversarial nature has left many people uncomfortable in a land long known as the last Himalayan Shangri-la, but some are gradually getting used to the idea of deciding for themselves.

“Everyone is very sad to see the king stand down,” said 42-year-old businessman Kinley Penjor. “We love all our kings.”

“But I think democracy will be good. In the past if you went to a minister about your problems -- well there is always a little bit of corruption, even in Bhutan, or it might be decided according to his mood.

“Now we can elect the best candidates.”

In 1960, Bhutan was a feudal, mediaeval place with no roads and practically no schools or hospitals. Today education and healthcare are free and widely available, most villages have access to safe drinking water and electricity, and life expectancy has risen to 66 years from less than 40.

A study in 2006 ranked it as the eighth happiest country in the world. Most people credit royal rule.

“The king is like Buddha,” said 42-year-old Wangmo, as she sold puffed rice in a weekly market in the central Bhutanese village of Khuruthang.

“He has brought lots of development, and under the king we have lived so many years peacefully. I don’t know how democracy is going to help.”

As a result, change will be gradual. Just two parties have been allowed to compete in the elections, both led by men from the king’s trusted inner circle, both former prime ministers under royal rule.

Their parties’ manifestoes are almost identical, both based on “His Majesty’s vision” of gross national happiness, the idea that economic growth be balanced by respect for traditions and the environment. Both stress continuity above all else.

“It is a tough choice,” said Penjor. “Both leaders are good men.”

“WE ARE NOT ROYALTY”

On one side stands 58-year-old Sangay Ngedup, who visited much of the country when he served various terms as agriculture, health and education ministers.

He is also a member of the royal family, the brother of one of Wangchuck’s four wives. Ngedup’s record in government has won him the support of many older, rural voters.

“Whichever party we choose will bring development,” said 53-year-old farmer Ganga, pictures of the fourth king and his son on the wall. “But Lyonpo (minister) Sangay brought in so many changes as agriculture minister, that is why he might be better.”

On the other stands Jigmi Thinley, a man who helped put flesh on the king’s concept of gross national happiness.

Thinley’s Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) has pitched itself as a party of ordinary Bhutanese, and takes a subtle dig at Ngedup’s weak spot - some of his relatives in the extended royal family do not have the same support as the fourth king and his son.

“We are not royalty,” DPT candidate Yeshey Zimba told Reuters in the capital Thimpu. “We are ordinary people like anyone else.”

Young, urban, educated Bhutanese say they love the king, but not all of his relatives by marriage. If the king has to stand aside, they do not want his relatives to fill the breach.

“Until now, no one ruled the country except the royal family,” said a 26-year-old man who requested anonymity for fear of trouble. “Sangay Ngedup being one of the royal family, we do not believe in him.”

With debate has come disharmony, as the two parties accuse each other of some low level vote-buying and coercion. Villages have been divided over who to vote for.

“Due to the freedom of speech, we have conflicts,” said 31-year-old farmer Kinley Namgyel as he cut chillies for lunch with his wife in the small central village of Jimthang.

“It was better in the olden days under the monarchy.”

But other people want their rights, and want to hold their leaders accountable.

“Suddenly we see that we are not all that good, innocent and honest people residing in the land of peace,” the Bhutan Times wrote in an editorial. “The mirror of democracy will help us realize we are what we are, and not exotic creatures.”

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