At the end of June the picturesque Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan held its first ever local elections. Over recent years this tiny country of around 700,000 has been undergoing a remarkable political transition and these were only the third nation-wide polls since Bhutan’s revered Fourth King, Jigme Sengay Wanchuk, decreed in 2006 that Bhutan was to become a democratic state. Somewhat ironically, the majority of Bhutan’s citizens were at first against the transition from absolute monarchy to democracy, yet, they have proved to be quick to adapt to the new reality.
Prior to the elections on 27th June, candidates came to village meeting places across their district in order to present their policies and field questions from local residents. With only a 60% literacy rate, these meetings are vital to the democratic process. On the day itself voters could not cast their ballot without wearing the national dress and every shop, restaurant, bar and business were ordered shut down for the day. The all powerful electoral commission also insisted that until voting had finished at 5pm it would be a dry day.
During the campaigning, the biggest difference to emerge between candidates seemed to be not policy but education versus experience. Many former representatives were up for re-election and were challenged by ex-monks or younger, well-educated candidates. As the election results unfolded, both new and old candidates had gained majorities and this split reflects the changes taking place across Bhutanese society: the challenge of bringing Bhutan into the modern world through economic development while at the same time preserving cultural traditions.
To overcome this tension the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH) has become somewhat of a national ideology. GNH has been promoted by the Fourth King since the 1970s as an alternative to GNP and is a kind of fusion of sustainable development, environmental protection and egalitarianism. Whether experienced or inexperienced, virtually all candidates sought to emphasise their loyalty to the GNH concept.
* Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 2 | No. 3
** Dr. Paul Richardson is currently on a Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science Post-Doctoral Fellowship, at the Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University.
© Copyright 2011 by CESRAN