ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 47

Bhutan votes for first time in mock democracy run

Bhutanese men chewing beetle-nuts struggle to get into a polling station in Paro town

SAM DRUP JONGKHAR, Bhutan, Saturday (AP) -Residents of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan began voting for the first time in the country's history in “dummy” elections designed as a warm-up for democracy. Authorities in the remote “Land of the Thunder Dragon” are hoping to teach people how parliamentary elections work, ahead of the planned transformation next year from absolute monarchy to democracy.

“This is a historic vote with polling underway in all the 47 parliamentary constituencies,” Dasho Kunzang Wangdi, Bhutan's chief election commissioner, told AFP by telephone from the capital, Thimphu. An estimated 400,000 people were eligible to vote in 47 parliamentary constituencies.

Real elections for a new parliament are due to be held in 2008, the culmination of a plan by former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck -- who handed his crown to his young Oxford-educated son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, in December -- to change with the times and relinquish absolute rule.

Men in colourful “khos,” full-sleeved robes tied at the waist, and women dressed in “kiras,” sarong-like wraps, lined up at polling stations in the Bhutanese town of Samdrup Jongkhar on the border with India, some 370 kilometres (229 miles) southeast of the capital Thimpu.

Voting began at 9 am (0300 GMT) and was set to last till 5 pm (1100 GMT), with election observers from the United Nations and neighbouring India monitoring the proceedings. Results were expected late Saturday, but with mock parties set up for voters -- the Druk (Thunder Dragon) Blue Party, the Druk Green Party, the Druk Red Party and the Druk Yellow Party -- the outcome will reveal little about next year's winner.

The polling is the first of two days of mock voting, with the next stage -- a square-off between Saturday's first and second-place winners -- to take place May 28. “The elections will give us a chance to evaluate our readiness for holding the big elections in 2008,” election official Wangdi said.

Two teams of election officials from the United Nations and neighbouring India were monitoring the two-round process. Royals or those directly tied to religious institutions are not allowed to vote, but the 26-year-old king was observing the polls in Tungkar, his family's ancestral village in northeastern Bhutan, a two-day drive from Thimphu.

“The king is there to encourage the people to vote and personally witness the first democratic process,” Wangdi said. Home to 600,000 people and known as a Shangri-la of jaw-dropping beauty, Bhutan's transition to democracy began in 2001, when the hugely popular former king handed over the powers of daily government to a council of ministers.

A 34-point draft constitution unveiled in 2004 has also been sent to the Bhutanese people for their views ahead of the 2008 polls. The constitution will replace a 1953 royal decree giving the monarch absolute power. Two-thirds of the population is eligible to vote and the younger Bhutanese appeared excited about the change.

Monks wearing maroon robes and tonsured heads offered prayers for the process by lighting butter lamps at monasteries. “This is a good sign for the country and we hope democracy ushers in all-round prosperity,” said Den Lama, a young Buddhist monk, after offering prayers at a Samdrup Jonghkar monastery.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.