April 03, 2008

Article at Reuters

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WITNESS: Democracy with a difference stuns humble Bhutanese

Simon Denyer is the India bureau chief for Reuters, with responsibility for Bhutan and Nepal as well. He visited Bhutan last May when it had a dry run of its first real democratic elections, and last month for the real thing.

Reuters India bureau chief Simon Denyer is shown in this file photo. REUTERS/file

In the following story, he describes an election where the best tactic for a candidate was to keep silent about qualifications and be vocal in support of the monarchy -- a vote which produced a surprising result.

THIMPHU (Reuters) - Schoolchildren in Bhutan are warned -- one word of disrespect against their teacher, and they will be reborn as a dog, for the next 500 lives.

Respect for authority is inculcated from an early age in the secluded Himalayan kingdom, where the king is revered as a Buddha and democracy seemed almost an experiment too far.

Yet democracy came to Bhutan last month on the insistence of its much-loved fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who decided people should choose their leaders, whether they wanted to or not.

It turned out to be one of the strangest and most inspiring electoral exercises I have ever witnessed, from the campaign right through to a very surprising result.

In the old days, I was told, a candidate for the post of village headman would visit houses under the cover of darkness, and meekly insist he was not good enough for the job.

“Please do not choose me, I am just a humble man,” was the sort of campaign refrain which went down well in rural Bhutan.

As campaigning got underway, the two contesting parties appeared to forget where they were, turning voters off in droves with personal attacks during TV debates and in the newspapers.

One party experimented with a couple of small rallies, only to find the tactic backfired in a country where demonstrations are banned and opinions mostly expressed behind closed doors.

So by the time I arrived a few days before the election, candidates were genteelly knocking on doors in search of votes.

Slideshow ( 5 images )

“We don’t tell people which party to vote for,” one of those who won told me. “We just try to educate voters.”

There were just a handful of election posters, on specially erected billboards, designed not to block the view of glorious Himalayan scenery and magnificent old houses.

In the hills overlooking Thimpu, the capital, a 58-year-old former finance minister labored along with the help of a cane, dressed in the red check knee-length gown all Bhutanese men wear.

As elderly voters bent double to show their respect to the Lyonpo, the honorific title given to government ministers, Yeshey Zimba seemed almost embarrassed.

“The two parties are the same,” he reassured one old woman. “You should just choose the best person for the job.”

Indeed, there did not seem to be a hair’s breadth between the two parties, each competing to be the most monarchist and the most reluctant of democrats, each committed to the royal philosophy of gross national happiness.

And yet something strange happened. If the king in his divine wisdom had given them a democratic choice, the people decided to grasp it.

After a century of royal rule, they would use this strange new tool to deliver a rebuke to a section of their own elite.

The landslide victor, winning 45 out of 47 constituencies, was Jigmi Thinley, twice prime minister under royal rule and one of the fourth king’s closest advisers.

Yet the shock loser was the brother of the same king’s four wives. Sangay Ngedup was even defeated in his own constituency, by a schoolteacher.

“I am amazed,” was perhaps the phrase I heard the most from ordinary people and political experts.

The election had revealed what many Bhutanese know but scarcely dare talk about in public -- that the king’s relatives by marriage are not remotely as popular as the king himself.

Ngedup’s father rose from being an ordinary farmer to a massive landowner and businessman after his daughters’ royal weddings. Villagers complained he had bullied them into selling land cheaply. Others said he used his influence unfairly.

Ngedup’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had, it seems, also offended sensibilities by throwing dinners to woo villagers.

His campaign motto may have been “service with humility”, but many Bhutanese told me pride had been his undoing. In his Punakha constituency, he declared he would be the next prime minister.

But the biggest winner in this bizarre election could have been the monarchy.

The fourth king, who abdicated in favor of his son in 2006, had always argued democracy was necessary to protect people from a leader chosen by heredity rather than ability.

By defusing any resentment that could have attached itself to the palace at a time of social change, the country’s very first election kept the monarchy’s reputation intact.

“Now the palace will remain as a respected institution, free from blames (sic) of connection with PDP’s boss who used his relationship with the royalty for his political mileage,” said a contributor called “palace” in a bhutantimes.com bulletin board.