Residents of Bhutan are ‘reluctant democrats’

THIMPHU, Bhutan — In this idyllic Himalayan country that measures progress by its “gross national happiness” index, the stoplight just didn’t cut it.

Residents here in the capital complained that Bhutan’s one and only automated traffic signal was too impersonal. It was taken down. Now, a white-gloved police officer gracefully directs motorists.

A lone man in charge: That’s what most Bhutanese want when it comes to how their country is run, not merely a single intersection. But their beloved king, the man in question, has other ideas.

On Monday, Bhutan is set to become the world’s newest democracy, with the first general elections in this isolated Buddhist kingdom. At the heart of this brave new world lies a paradox: It is people power by royal decree. The Bhutanese are choosing their leaders because, essentially, they were told to by their king.

He intends to bow out as an absolute ruler and turn Bhutan into a modern constitutional monarchy. But the changes afoot have produced ambivalence in a traditional, largely rural populace more inclined to see democracy as a Pandora’s box apt to bring dissension and other nasty influences to their placid, cohesive society.

‘Too early for democracy’

“I feel maybe we’re too early for democracy,” said Wangchuk Wangdi, 47, a tour operator who was dressed for work one morning in a colorful striped “gho,” the traditional knee-length robe worn by Bhutanese men. “Till now, we’ve been under five kings. All have been good.”

Few people here seem particularly thrilled about the prospect of governing themselves, preferring to remain subjects under direct rule by the Golden Throne, which has guided the Land of the Thunder Dragon for the past 101 years. But spurred by devotion and duty to the king, they say they will do their best to fulfill his vision of a shiny new Bhutan.

“We are reluctant democrats,” said Sonam Tobgay Dorji, a candidate for parliament. “It’s been forced on us, and we have to embrace it.”

No one knows with certainty why Bhutan’s fourth “Dragon King,” Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decided a few years ago that the time had come to limit the monarchy and impose democracy. (The monarchy was established in 1907 after centuries of feuding between chieftains and religious leaders.) Turbulent experiments in democracy — and dismal results — in some other South Asian countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh were less than encouraging.

On his nationwide tour to explain his decision, some of his subjects wept and begged him to reconsider.

Impressive improvements

Almost to a person, the Bhutanese credit the king’s wisdom and ability for the impressive strides in literacy rates, life expectancy and other social indicators the nation has made since he inherited the “Raven Crown” as a teenager in 1972.

New hydroelectric projects, partly funded by energy-hungry India, which buys up all the power, are bringing in revenue to what remains a fairly poor country of mostly small farmers who plant rice, wheat and other crops. Annual per capita income is more than $1,400 — high for the region but low by international standards.

Some speculate that the example of another Himalayan kingdom might have triggered the push for democratic reform. In April 2006, a violent popular revolt forced the king of Nepal to end absolute rule; that country now stands on the verge of abolishing the monarchy altogether.

In Bhutan, the royal palace has, in effect, opted for peaceful evolution now rather than possible revolution later. After setting the democratic process in motion, the fourth king abdicated in December 2006, handing the throne to his Oxford-educated son, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, then 26.

“We are blessed to do this peacefully, literally as a gift from the king. Everywhere else it’s at the point of a gun,” said Ugyen Tshering, a candidate in north Thimphu.

In many ways, the carefully planned transition to democracy is the most daring leap into modernity for a country whose diplomatic and physical isolation had, in the eyes of most residents, been pretty splendid for much of its history.

Sandwiched between Asia’s two giants, India and China, Bhutan has fiercely guarded its independence and held itself aloof from the rest of the world, establishing ties with only a handful of nations, which do not include the United States. Its population of less than 700,000 citizens lives in an area barely twice the size of Vermont. Most are devout practitioners of a form of Buddhism believed to have been introduced to Bhutan in the eighth century by a guru who arrived on the back of a flying tiger.

Television, including satellite channels, and the Internet were gingerly allowed in only in the past decade, and only after great debate. Even then, authorities banned MTV and a sports channel that broadcast professional wrestling because of their potentially deleterious effect on youth.

Environmental protections

Protecting Bhutan’s spectacular natural environment — glacial lakes, fertile valleys and towering forests of blue pine, oak and cypress — is one of the pillars of public policy here. So is preservation of its cultural heritage, which includes the elegant native dress, the Dzongkha language and, many say, the Buddhism-inspired social harmony that is now under threat from the evils of Western-style party politics.

“It frightens me,” said Dorji Yangki, 18, as she hung out with friends in the main square in Thimphu. Like many youths here, she likes her fashions new and hip, such as bluejeans and sneakers — but not her politics.

“Democracy is just starting right now,” Yangki said. “We can see the candidates fighting, and it’s just the beginning.”

Negative campaigning

Newspapers have shuddered at the negative campaigning between the two new parties: the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, or DPT, and the People’s Democratic Party, or PDP.

But even Bhutan’s gloves-off politicking seems more akin to a sandbox squabble than the mudslinging common in the West: A typical dispute centers on one party’s use of yellow in its logo, which the other side indignantly points out is the king’s color.

In reality, little separates the two parties. Neither dares deviate from the blueprint for increasing “GNH” — gross national happiness — laid out by the king, based on sustainable development.

“Bhutanese politics is still without ideology,” said the Harvard-educated Sonam Tobgay Dorji, a candidate for the People’s Democratic Party. “So basically, what people are looking at is what candidates can deliver.”

The politicians’ promises are of the usual kind in the developing world: more roads, reliable electricity, better sanitation, safe drinking water.

But to an electorate afraid of change, both parties also preach stability. The DPT, whose slate of nominees boasts five former ministers in the royal government, promotes itself as the safest hands for an uncertain time, while the PDP projects a younger, more dynamic image, a party able to “walk the talk,” as its slogan goes. The leader of the party that wins a majority of the 47 parliamentary seats will be Bhutan’s first elected prime minister.

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