Tens of thousands line up to vote in Bhutanese polls

FREE AND FAIR::Officials are determined the elections must be fair, with international monitors invited to see all stations and parties banned from plying voters with freebies


Sun, Jul 14, 2013 - Page 6

Tens of thousands of people in Bhutan lined up yesterday to elect a government in the tiny Himalayan nation’s second parliamentary elections.

An earlier round in May eliminated three of five political parties, leaving Bhutan’s ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, or Peace and Prosperity Party, and the main opposition People’s Democratic Party to contest yesterday’s conclusive poll.

The remote nation of about 738,000 held its first election in 2008 after Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck voluntarily reduced the monarchy’s role in running the country.

Bhutanese Chief Election Commissioner Kunzang Wangdi said the election authorities have set up 850 polling stations, including in hard-to-reach mountain villages.

Nearly 382,000 people are eligible to elect a 47-member National Assembly, he added.

Long lines snaked out from polling stations, as people came out in droves to choose their representatives. Many held umbrellas to shield themselves from the sunlight as the country enjoyed a rare sunny day.

Authorities sealed off Bhutan’s borders with India and the Bhutanese army was assisting the country’s small police force to ensure that the elections passed peacefully, Wangdi said.

International poll observers from Britain, India and the EU were in Bhutan to monitor the process, Wangdi said.

“The international observers are free to travel to any polling station to see the poll being conducted,” he said.

In the primaries held in May, outgoing Bhutanese Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigme Yoser Thinley’s Peace and Prosperity Party secured 45 percent of the vote, compared with the opposition’s 35 percent. Three political groups were eliminated in the primaries.

Vote counting will begin at the polling stations soon after voting ends, with the results expected today, Wangdi said.

The campaigning by the 94 candidates has been subdued as they mostly participated in debates on state-run television rather than holding street rallies.

In a bid to keep the elections free, the commission banned candidates from offering food, including the customary cheese and beer, to people at election rallies.

“No freebies. This was our directive to the political parties,” Wangdi said.

Sandwiched between Asian giants China and India, Bhutan was long closed to the rest of the world. It began opening up in the 1960s. Foreigners and the international media were first admitted in 1974, and television arrived only in 1999.

India has had a special relationship with Bhutan and over the decades, Bhutan has been the biggest recipient of Indian aid. Thousands of Bhutanese study in India and New Delhi has helped build several hydropower plants in the country that sell electricity to India.

However, India’s decision early this month to cut fuel subsidies on cooking gas and kerosene to Bhutan has become an election issue. The Bhutanese government has asked India to reconsider its decision after the prices of cooking gas and kerosene doubled.

New Delhi said it would review the decision and work out a solution once India finalizes its financial aid to Bhutan for the next five years. The previous aid plan ended last month.

Media reports say India cut the subsidies to show its unhappiness over the Bhutanese prime minister’s cozying up to rival China. The opposition also blame the governing party for hurting ties with India.

An editorial in English-language daily Kuensel, in which the government has a majority share, said: “Many Bhutanese are hurt and angered by the timing [of the subsidy cuts], and feel it is a deliberate move to rock the elections.”