Mon, Apr 23, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Bhutan moving toward democracy

AGENCIES , SAMDRUP JONGKHAR AND PARO, BHUTAN

The people of the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan cast their vote for tradition and the monarchy, officials said yesterday, as results came in from a mock election designed as a dress rehearsal for the country's first truly democratic polls next year.

The poll was a big step towards ending a century of royal rule and ushering in a new era of parliamentary democracy in the conservative, mainly Buddhist nation, a prospect which many Bhutanese view with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation.

People were asked to choose between four dummy parties with imaginary manifestos, each represented by a different color, and emphasizing fairness and accountability, the environment, industrial development and traditional values.

"The first of the two-phased mock elections was a great success and we are now ready to usher in democracy," Dasho Kunzang Wangdi, Bhutan's chief election commissioner, said by telephone from the capital Thimphu.

Saturday's dummy elections were designed to familiarize residents of the "Land of the Thunder Dragon" with the workings of parliamentary democracy.

The exercise is part of a plan by former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck -- who handed his crown in December to his young Oxford-educated son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck -- to change with the times and assume a more ceremonial role.

An estimated 400,000 people were eligible to vote in the tiny Buddhist nation, which is about the size of Switzerland and sits sandwiched between India and China.

But turnout appeared low at about 30 percent, with just 124,747 votes cast in the 47 constituencies.

Voters were given a choice of four fictional parties -- the Blue, Green, Red and Yellow Druk parties. The Druk, or Thunder Dragon, is the national symbol.

Each party had a fictional platform: the Blue party stood for industrial development, the Greens for environmental protection, and the Red Druks for free and fair government.

But it was the Yellow Druk party, which stood for "ensuring unity of the country through preservation of traditions, culture and values" that appeared to be ahead in preliminary results, Wangdi said.

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