THIMPU (Reuters) - The people of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan shocked even themselves on Monday, voting for stability and experience in their first ever parliamentary polls but overwhelmingly rejecting a party led by the king’s uncle.
This was not a vote against the much-loved king of Bhutan or a century of royal rule — many people had said they were reluctant to embrace democracy, and the winner of the elections, Jigmi Thinley, was himself a staunch royalist.
But the scale of his victory, winning 44 of the 47 seats on offer according to provisional results announced by the election commission, sent subtle messages which will reverberate around this deeply traditional and conservative land.
“It is truly amazing,” said Palden Tshering, spokesman for Thinley’s Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT). “The people really have made the decision.”
The present king’s uncle Sangay Ngedup even lost in his own constituency. If the king had to stand aside, the people of Bhutan seem to be saying, they are not sure they want his many relatives by marriage to take over.
“They have given the government to the public now,” said one voter who declined to be named, in a country still not used to criticism of the elite or political discourse.
“The youth must have chosen.”
The winner, Thinley, was a former prime minister under royal rule, a man closely associated with gross national happiness, the former, fourth king’s idea that economic development be balanced by respect for traditions and the environment.
His team included two other former prime ministers and two ex-finance ministers.
“People want stability,” said Tshering. “It is all down to the experience of our party at the executive level.
The DPT’s motto, “Growth with equity and justice,” may also have gone down well in a country where a quarter of the population still live below the poverty line, voters said.
Bhutan’s two political parties say they had never wanted democracy — the idea was thrust upon them by their fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who abdicated in favor of his son two years ago.
The fifth king, the 28-year-old Oxford-educated Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, had urged all his people to exercise their franchise in a statement issued at the weekend, and the Bhutanese people do not ignore a royal command.
Turnout was recorded at 79.4 percent, with more than 250,000 people casting their votes.
Early in the morning, long queues formed at polling stations near the capital Thimpu. Sad to see the king stand aside, many people said they were warming to the idea of democracy.
“I am happy, excited and worried all at the same time,” said 24-year-old office worker Chimi Lam, dressed in a green silk jacket and ankle-length skirt at a polling station at Batesa primary school overlooking the pine-clad Thimpu valley.
Tandin Wangmo, a 28-year-old school teacher, started queuing with her friends at 7:30 a.m., an hour and a half before polls opened. “We are very excited to vote because it is going to make a big difference to our country,” she said.
Sandwiched between India and China, Bhutan might not quite be the Shangri-la of popular imagination, but there is a sense of harmony among its conservative, Buddhist majority. Some worry that the adversarial nature of democracy could undermine that.
The election is the latest step in Bhutan’s slow process of modernization and development. In 1960, it had no roads and practically no schools or hospitals.
Today, education and healthcare are free, most villages have water and electricity, and life expectancy has risen to 66 years from less than 40.
But even Shangri-la has its problems.
A booming industry selling hydro power to India creates wealth but few jobs. Unemployment, crime and drug addiction are rising along with rural-urban migration.
Yet neither party’s manifestoes dared mention the country’s most intractable problem.
In 1990, tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis were forced out of Bhutan after protesting against the imposition of national dress and the closure of Nepali language schools. More than 100,000 now live in crowded camps inside Nepal.
A similar number still live in southern Bhutan, but exiled groups say tens of thousands have been denied identity cards — and thus voting rights — making “a mockery” of the election.
Editing by Bill Tarrant