December 31, 2007 / 5:05 AM / 12 years ago

Bhutan steps towards democracy

DEOTHANG, Bhutan (Reuters) - Bhutanese voted on Monday to elect members to a new upper house of parliament for the first time, a step towards democracy after a century of absolute monarchy.

People stand outside a polling station in Pashakha village during Bhutan's first national council voting December 31, 2007. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhur

The tiny, conservative Himalayan kingdom has been preparing for democracy since former monarch Jigme Singye Wangchuck decided to hand power to an elected government, even as many of his citizens said they were quite happy with the way things were.

Monday’s vote is only the first step, and it has not been without problems — the Election Commission has acknowledged an unspecified number of complaints from eligible voters saying they have been unable to vote because of bureaucratic glitches.

More important polls are expected to take place in February and March with elections to the lower house, when newly formed political parties will be able to take part.

In Monday’s election, many candidates are fresh-faced 20-somethings, at least partly because of rules requiring all candidates be university graduates.

All three candidates in Samdrup-Jongkhar, a district in the south, are under 30.

Jigme Wangchuk, 28, is giving up teaching for politics. He is running against Sangay Lhendup, a 25-year-old stand-up comedian and political science graduate. Both hope to beat Kuenga Dorji, a 25-year-old actor with good looks and a nice singing voice.

All three are promising development for this quiet nation of farmers and Buddhist monks, where television arrived only in 1999.

Voters queued from 8 a.m. (0200 GMT), all dressed, as is compulsory, in traditional Bhutanese costume — gowns for the men and long dresses for the women, some of whom were carrying babies. Many walked for hours from distant villages across the mountain slopes to cast their vote.

“Democracy will be good for the younger generation, with a lot of developments taking place and there will be a lot of job opportunities,” said Kuenzeng Choden, a 20-year-old trainee teacher outside Deothang town and one of Bhutan’s 312,817 voters.

But with the monarchy remaining popular in Bhutan, many citizens are nervous of the changes ahead.

“I’m afraid that our country might end up like other countries who are having problems because of democracy,” said Mila Wangchuk, 28, who runs a real estate business.

At another polling station visited by Reuters there were at least 25 people who complained they were eligible to vote but denied their franchise because of paperwork problems.

“We have faced some logistical problems,” said Kunzang Wangdi, the chief election commissioner, speaking by phone from Thimpu, the capital. “Some people applied for their voter card quite late so they could not receive them on time.”

Many ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan were not even given the right to vote. Tens of thousands fled Bhutan or were expelled in 1991 for protesting against discrimination and demanding democracy.

Many of those that remain have been denied citizenship. For some, Monday’s vote was an unhappy reminder of those differences.

“We are not terrorists,” said Dorji, an ethnic-Nepali shop worker who lives in Samdrup-Jongkhar, the district capital on the Indian border. “We want to live in peace in Bhutan but we have not been allowed to vote and we are treated as outsiders.”

The National Council, as it will be known, will have 25 members. They are barred from joining political parties.

Slideshow (5 Images)

Five members will be chosen by the present monarch, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, the 27-year-old Oxford graduate who took over from his father in 2006.

Voters will choose the remaining 20. But five districts failed to nominate even a single candidate in time for Monday’s polls. They will hope to have addressed this by January 29, when the polls in those districts have been rescheduled.

There are 43 candidates contesting in the other 15 districts. The polls closed at 4 p.m. local time. Results should be announced on Tuesday, election officials said.

Writing by Jonathan Allen; editing by Simon Denyer

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