THIMPU (Reuters) -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.
Its northern neighbor Tibet may be writhing in protest under Chinese rule, but Buddhist Bhutan, a nation of just 600,000 people, is making a different kind of history .
Bhutan’s fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, not only surrendered power without a struggle, he actually imposed democracy against the will of many of his subjects, before abdicating in favor of his Oxford-educated son in 2006.
“At first people were pleading with the king not to do this,” said Kinley Dorji, managing director of the state-owned newspaper Kuensel. “People were looking around at what is happening in South Asia and saying ‘no thank you’.”
“But His Majesty said you can’t leave such a small, vulnerable country in the hands of only one man, who was chosen by birth and not by merit.”
Bhutan had been largely peaceful under a century of royal rule, aside from ethnic tensions that erupted in 1990. The chaos, conflict and corruption of democracy in its giant southern neighbor India left many people scared.
In 1960, Bhutan was a mediaeval place, with no roads, cars or hospitals. It has hauled many of its people out of poverty since then, but is still only opening up slowly.
Even today national dress is compulsory, knee-length robes with long socks for men, elegant gowns for women. Criticism of the elite was almost unheard of, even a year ago.
But democracy is coming, and “it is more real than we realized”, said Dorji.
True, there are only two political parties, with almost identical manifestoes based on the present government’s latest five-year plan and what people call “His Majesty’s vision”.
Both promote Gross National Happiness (GNH), the king’s idea that traditions and the environment should not be sacrificed in the ruthless pursuit of economic growth.
Both say development must be more “equitable” than in the past, but both party leaders are drawn from the elite, one the brother of Wangchuck’s four wives, the other a man closely associated with the idea of GNH. Each party leader has served twice as prime minister under royal rule.
Yet debate is arriving in Bhutan. As the two parties accuse each other of some low-level corruption and vote-buying, the press has in the process become freer.
“Ours was a society where people needed to be respected, and not really be stripped in public,” said Gopilal Acharya, editor of the Bhutan Times newspaper.
“But these are public figures, and people have a right to know what kind of people they are.”
Yet for now this remains a closely controlled democracy. Chief Election Commissioner Kunzang Wangdi disqualified a third party from running because he felt it lacked sufficient leadership, candidates and resources.
“The Election Commission has moral responsibility, we are the gatekeeper,” he said. “We will only let in somebody who we can assure can manage the country, if not better than the king, then at least maintain its present state.”
There are limits to debate, too, and they are strict. No criticism of the royal family, no raising of ethnic issues in a “divisive” way.
In 1990, tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis were forced out of Bhutan for demanding democracy and protesting against discrimination, and more than 100,000 now live in crowded camps inside Nepal.
A similar number still live in southern Bhutan, but exiled groups say many of them have been denied identity cards -- and thus voting rights -- making a “mockery” of the election.
Rebel groups have emerged from the refugee camps in the past year and have threatened to disrupt the polls.
They detonated three bombs inside Bhutan on Thursday, injuring a policeman, and eight others this year, with one death.
Yet within Bhutan, there is real hope that democracy will also bring with it gradual change for the Nepali minority. The parties have fielded a combined total of 19 ethnic Nepali candidates in the country’s 47 constituencies.
“For either of the parties to survive it has to have support in the three main regions, the east, west and south,” said Tashi Tsering, spokesman for the People’s Democratic Party.
“It is an issue that neither party is taking up very strongly at this point in time, but one the new government has to face and address immediately.”
For the Buddhist majority, democracy is still slightly baffling, but it is a change many people are learning to embrace.
“We can speak out now,” said 28-year-old Ugyen Dorji, an administrative assistant in a school in the capital Thimpu. “After democracy they have to come here, and talk to low-level people.”