Bhutan will hold its first democratic elections in March, the latest step in the transformation of the Himalayan nation where Buddhist kings reigned supreme.
The secluded and mountainous country has long been known as a quirky holdout from modernity, letting in few visitors and banning television and smoking.
But much has changed in recent years - television, for example, was introduced in 1999 - and the election announced Thursday is the latest step in Bhutan’s transformation.
For the average Bhutanese, many of whom view the monarchy and its attachment to tradition with affection, the vote has been greeted with a mix of enthusiasm and foreboding.
When the country held mock elections last year, hundreds of thousands of voters flocked to the polls, excitedly casting the first ballots of their lives.
But most voted for the fictitious Druk Yellow party, which promised the “preservation of Bhutan’s culture and tradition,” trouncing the Druk Red party, which said it would push “industry-led development.”
Even with the real election looming, voters’ concerns reflect their largely rural lives.
Tandi Dorji of the People’s Democratic Party, one of two parties vying for a majority in the election, listed wild boars as the primary problem facing his constituency. He added that a labor shortage and lack of economic opportunities also had to be addressed.
The election is scheduled for March 24 and the country’s first elected prime minister should take office a day later, Chief Election Commissioner Kunzang Wangdi said Thursday.
Under a draft constitution, the king, 27-year-old Jigme Keshar Namgyal Wangchuck, will become head of state, but Parliament will have the power to impeach him by a two-thirds vote.
Bhutan took its first steps toward democracy in late December when thousands turned out to elect 15 out of 20 members of the National Council, but restrictions placed on candidates prevented it from being fully democratic.
The first-ever national poll only allowed those who were over 25 years of age with no party affiliation and a bachelor’s degree to run. Candidates also had to have a crime-free background.
The five remaining members of the National Council, or upper house, will be elected at the end of January because of a shortage of eligible candidates in the first election. Another five are to be appointed by the king.
For nearly a century, kings have sought to shield the country - sandwiched between India and China - from the outside world.
Until just a few decades ago Bhutan was a medieval agrarian society, with no paved roads, no electricity, no hospitals and no telephones. Goods were bartered rather than bought. Only in 1961 was a slow process of modernization begun, and it wasn’t until 13 years later that foreign journalists and tourists were allowed to visit.
Nowadays, the country has a cash economy and several thousand tourists are welcomed every year, albeit on heavily supervised and expensive tours.
But its unique character remains. Mountain climbing is banned to preserve the pristine forests that laws dictate must cover 60 per cent of the country and Bhutanese must go about in public in their national dress.
Even the size of the country’s population is unknown - estimates put it anywhere between 700,000 and 2.2 million people. For the election, authorities say some 400,000 people are registered to vote.
But this dedication to preserving Bhutanese culture has a darker side too.
More than 100,000 ethnic Nepalis - a Hindu minority in Bhutan for centuries - were forced out by Bhutanese authorities who wanted to impose Buddhist culture across the country and have been living as refugees in eastern Nepal since the early 1990s.
Bhutan has refused to take the refugees back, saying most left voluntarily. (AP)
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