Dragon king and democracy
|School children walk past a designated election campaign stand in Thimphu. AP
THIMPHU (AP) - The command came from the king, as commands normally do in a nation where royalty has ruled for a century. But when the Precious Ruler of the Dragon People spoke that day, he stunned this deeply isolated corner of the Himalayas: The age of monarchs is ending, he said, and power should be yours.
That was a little over two years ago. Now, on the eve of national elections on Monday that will upend a system rooted in feudal monarchism, much of the country remains unconvinced there should even be a vote.
Just ask the candidates.
"If you had a referendum, even today, Bhutan would reject democracy. That's the ground reality," said Khandu Wangchuk, the burly, gravel-voiced former foreign minister who is running for a seat in the western town of Paro. "But there's no use wishing democracy away."
What most people want is what they've always had: a powerful king.
Five generations of royal rule have molded Bhutan into an island of Himalayan idiosyncrasy, a tiny country sandwiched between India and China, carefully balanced along the edge of medieval traditions and modern realities.
It's a place awash in its own contradictions.
This is a country where nightclubs in Thimphu, the capital, throb with techno music, but where smoking is illegal and television didn't arrive until 1999. It's a place where nearly every child attends primary school, but any 50-year-old remembers when there were just a handful of schools and no roads to get to them. It's a country with US$1,000-a-night (euro630-a-night) hotel rooms where tourism is heavily restricted. There were fewer than 20,000 visitors last year -- as many as Disney World gets in a few hours.
Then there is Gross National Happiness, the overarching political philosophy which seeks to balance material progress with spiritual well-being.
That philosophy, quoted like Maoist dogma by aspiring Bhutanese politicians, came from King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, 52, the gentle-spoken, much-loved monarch who gradually opened Bhutan to the outside world. In 2006, he handed the throne to his son, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, now 28.
Together, they have orchestrated their own disempowerment, engineering a peaceful transition to democratic rule in a region riven with turmoil. The monarchy remains, but will become constitutional, like Britain's or Thailand's.
Both insist the country will not turn back.
"In the womb of a strong and peaceful monarchy, we have begun to nurture the hopes of a vibrant democracy," the young king said in a recent speech. "It is this endeavor that we must henceforth uphold as our greatest priority: the success of democracy."
By monarchy's standards, Bhutan's royal family is fairly new, coming to power in 1907 and bringing stability to a little-known region isolated by harsh mountainous geography and riven by unrest and war. Change came slowly, from the elimination of serfdom in the 1950s to the last king passing some power to an elected assembly and advisory council in the late 1990s -- while remaining firmly at the centre of government.
Monday's elections will change that, leaving the monarch with the power to make top appointments, though only in consultation with elected officials, and a parliament empowered to impeach him.
But while the king and his father clearly want a real democracy, and are staying well clear of the election campaigns, their popularity means they are likely to retain considerable informal authority. How they will wield that still remains unknown.
I am for king
No matter what, though, a constitutional monarch won't be the same. "It is the king who has called us to vote for these politicians, so we have to vote ... But I would rather have a king," said Lham, a 56-year-old woman with one name, leading cows up a quiet dirt path. She's from Zamsa, a village of about 20 wooden houses cut off from the nearest road by a boulder-filled river and a narrow footbridge.
Not that she doesn't see the upside of villagers being able to talk directly to candidates trolling for votes. "We actually see these people, and can tell them what we need. If they live up to their promises, that will be a precious thing," Lham said.
But in this part of the world, political promises are rarely kept. Across one border, protests and Chinese crackdowns wrack Tibet. In nearby Nepal, the once-powerful royal family is now disdained, the politicians are widely seen as corrupt and Maoists launched a war that left 13,000 people dead.
The regional turmoil was, in part, what motivated Bhutan's king to embrace democracy. Why wait, he asked his subjects, for a time when trouble pushes the kingdom into a political corner?
And at least so far, Bhutanese democracy has been a gentle affair. There are no angry campaign rallies, no attack ads. The posters are sedate to a fault: "He held honorary posts as vice president of the Bhutan Archery Federation," notes one candidate's flier.
When a candidate was disqualified, it was for "a willfully calculated act to garner political support." His crime: distributing a research paper on Bhutan written years ago by the other party's president. "We didn't want (the election) to be how it happens outside Bhutan," said Nim Dem, a former education official running for parliament from the small town of Haa. "It's not necessary to go around putting posters everywhere, or holding rallies and making noise ... It's just not done here to do something aggressively."
But while it can be easy to see Bhutan as a royalist Eden, the reality is more complicated.
About one-fifth of the country lives in poverty, and youth unemployment has risen sharply. Many officials quietly worry that corruption, already a problem, will spike with the arrival of elected politicians.
The most glaring problem is in nearby Nepal, where an estimated 100,000 ethnic Nepalis live in refugee camps. A Hindu minority that lived in Bhutan for centuries, they were driven out in the early 1990s as Bhutan promoted the dominant Buddhist culture.
"We are not paradise," said Dem. "We have problems."
How politicians will tackle those problems, though, is unclear.
Policy differences between the two parties -- the People's Democratic Party and the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party -- are nebulous. Both heap praise on the king and Gross National Happiness. Both promise to respect Bhutan's heritage while expanding its economy.
The PDP is more open to change, but is led by the king's uncle, leaving it unlikely to seek major reforms.
So for most people, voting tends to be based more on personality -- and in contests where as few as 1,000 voters will decide some seats, simply having big families will be important. "You have to support your own relatives," said Dem, laughing.
Outside, Haa's midday streets were nearly empty. It has few businesses except donkey caravans that smuggle in cheap Chinese consumer goods from across the mountains. It's hard to find anyone excited about the elections.
Standing in the doorway of her tiny general store, a badly lit room offering batteries, tea and cheap beer, Dorji Wangmo frowned when asked about the vote. "With the king in power, we knew what to expect, what would happen," she said. "But if the people have the power, anything could happen."