Monday, 24 March 2008

Historic polls set to begin as Bhutan ends royal rule

THIMPHU (AFP) - Voting began in the small Himalayan nation of Bhutan Monday, in elections that will select the country's first ever democratic government and mark the end of absolute royal rule by the revered Wangchuk dynasty.

Voting was began at 09:00 am (0300 GMT) for 47 members for the lower house, with the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) or Bhutan United Party locked in a tight race for power.

The country's young Oxford-educated King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk made a strong pitch at the weekend for his subjects -- many of whom have been reluctant to bring in democracy -- to cast their vote judiciously.

"This election is not about choosing a winner from among two candidates or two parties. This election and the democracy that we will build are the result of the sacrifice and hard work of generations of Bhutanese people," he said.

Over 318,000 of the nation's 670,000 people were eligible to vote for the two parties, which have made similar promises to boost growth and develop roads and other infrastructure, making it a tough choice for many voters.

Polling stations were to close at 5:00 pm (1100 GMT) and the preliminary results were expected within hours, transforming Bhutan into the world's newest democracy.

Final official results would be declared on Tuesday in the country, which is sandwiched between India and China and has been called a "Himalayan Eden" because of its breathtaking mountain scenery and clean air.

"People are going to vote on the basis of the candidate's image and past performance, and also on the basis of personal ties," said Gopilal Acharya, editor of private newspaper Bhutan Times.

The kingdom's move to democracy began in 2001 when former king Jigme Singye Wangchuk handed over daily government to a council of ministers and finally stepped down in favour of his son in late 2006.

Since then, both father and son travelled tirelessly around the state to explain to its people why the nation should embrace democracy.

"The former king said, 'Today you have a good king, but what if you have a bad king tomorrow', " said Kinley Dorji, managing director of the national Kuensel newspaper. "The argument was irrefutable."

The former king was most famous for conceiving the concept of gross national happiness as yardstick to measure the isolated nation's wellbeing.

Officials said they expected more than 70 percent turnout after tepid responses in last year's mock polls to familiarise voters with the process, and recent elections for the upper house.

The political parties have put immense pressure on people to vote. So they will turn up in huge numbers," said chief election commissioner Kunzang Wangdi.

People can cast their vote only in their home towns so thousands took leave to go to their remote villages. Streets in capital Thimphu were deserted over the weekend and many shops and businesses were closed.

"Because of this vote, many people are going home after years," said Tashi Wangdi, editor-in-chief of Bhutan Observer newspaper.

Helicopters dropped election guidelines to inaccessible locations while mules carried voting apparatus to ballot stations.

Both the parties are led by two-time former prime ministers, and are heavily stacked with experienced bureaucrats.

The PDP is headed by Sangay Ngedup, who is the brother of the former king's four queens -- all sisters, and is said to enjoy wide support in rural areas.

DPT head Jigmi Thinley is described as sharp and sophisticated, and is known for his zeal for preserving of the country's culture.

Security was tightened after several small bombings blamed on communist rebels operating from Nepal over the past few months.

Tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalese fled from southern Bhutan to Nepal after a cultural campaign to encourage the use of Bhutan's national language and dress, and have been living in refugee camps.

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