Bhutan: The World's Youngest Democracy
Do the elections in Bhutan mean radical political change for the small nation?
- The monarchy may have given up rule on paper, but its power remains in force — and the time for Bhutan's political transition was deliberately chosen.
- The Bhutanese have voiced great reverence toward the monarchy in the past. Such an attitude was reflected in the election outcome.
- No outside powers were exerting pressure for democracy in Bhutan. Neither the elites nor the country's majority population of farmers was calling for an end to monarchy.
- In the King's view, in order for Burma to achieve "collective happiness," its citizens must become empowered.
- Neither of the two rival political parties in the election was campaigning for democracy. The political transformation was a royal directive, rather than the result of socio-economic change.
The tiny, remote Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan became the world's newest democracy in the spring of 2008, when its first-ever multi-party election ended over a century of monarchical rule.
On March 24, over 80% of eligible Bhutanese voters heeded the king's order and flooded the polls to cast their votes. The Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) secured a landslide victory, winning 44 out of 47 seats in the National Assembly.
Yet few Bhutanese believe that the results of this historic election will significantly change the country's political course.
The Bhutanese people have seen a significant increase in living standards in recent years, and a small middle class is steadily emerging — though nearly three-quarters of the population continue to live without electricity.
More than 20,000 cars are now registered in the ever-crowded capital of Thimphu, while ten years ago most people walked to work. Television, which was first introduced in 1999, has since given many young people a glimpse of the outside world.
More and more Bhutanese have gained access to formal education thanks to the King's educational reform initiatives. Yet many of the beneficiaries have merely gone on to work for the royal government — instead of in the fledgling private sector. Despite several signs of development, business in Bhutan is either controlled by the government or by a small, wealthy elite.
No outside powers were exerting pressure for democracy in Bhutan in the lead-up to the inaugural election. More importantly, neither the elites nor the country's majority population of farmers were calling for an end to monarchy.
Even more bizarre was the fact that neither of the two rival political parties in the election was campaigning for democracy. Previously serving as members of the royal government, they were "told" by the king to reorganize themselves as parties. The political transformation was a royal directive, rather than the result of socio-economic change.
While many dictators and military juntas around the world — not to mention the royal family of neighboring Nepal — are using both coercion and military might to hang on to power, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuk decided that his reign had come to an end and Bhutan must transition to a democracy.
When he announced his abdication in December 2006, he clarified that democracy was not necessarily Bhutan's goal, but a part of good governance and a key pillar of the King's ultimate objective — to achieve Gross National Happiness (GNH).
Conceived by the king himself, the GNH became the country's benchmark to development, as opposed to the usual Gross National Product (GNP).
It is intended to promote a more balanced and equitable development that supposedly preserved Bhutan's rich, cultural heritage. In order for the country to achieve "collective happiness," its citizens must become empowered, in the King's view.
However, another factor behind King Wangchuk's decision to initiate political change must be acknowledged: the inevitable intrusion of modern technology. King Wangchuk certainly recognized that times are changing and that Bhutan cannot remain isolated forever.
The monarchy may have given up rule on paper, but its power remains in force. The time for Bhutan's political transition was deliberately chosen. There is stability and peace in the country — and the royal family has the people's trust.
It came as no surprise that both parties running in the recent election vowed to continue the King's policies, as well as his vision of the GNH state.
Much to the bewilderment of international election observers, both the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT or People's Harmony Party) and the People's Democratic Party (PDP) shared a strikingly similar political platform — a continuation of the monarch's policies — though the latter proposed a faster change of pace.
Bhutan’s first democratic election was not contested, for it lacked real alternatives to the existing political discourse. As the new leadership takes its place, King Wangchuk's system of governance, public policy and official discourse will carry on.
The Bhutanese have voiced great reverence toward the monarchy, and satisfaction towards its policies, in the past. Such an attitude was reflected in the election outcome, when most Bhutanese voted overwhelming for those who had previously served under the King.
They were happy with the way things were before — and wanted to maintain this continuity.
The last time a monarch abdicated power to make way for democracy was in 1932, when Thai King Rama VII gave up the throne.
It was widely believed that Thailand was not "ready" for democracy, and his abdication was rendered prematurely — resulting in a myriad of lengthy autocratic-military rulers interspersed with more than a dozen coups.
The transition to democracy in Bhutan after centuries of monarchical rule will certainly give rise to "royalists" or "monarchists" who will continue to be prominent on the political scene for years to come.
That is what occurred in Thailand, where royalists prompted a coup in 2006, more than 70 years after the end of monarchy's rule, to topple Thaksin Shinawatra's government.
There remain significant challenges for the future of democracy in Bhutan. First of all, there seems to be no real opposition force on the political scene. At least for now, the monarchists will be the only political group running the show.
Royalist bureaucrats and civil servants will continue to occupy important positions in the system of governance in Bhutan.
But as the democratic institution matures, new political parties will emerge to eventually challenge the legitimacy of the monarchy. Until then, continuity is the order of the day.