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Thousands of Bhutanese vote Monday to elect a National Council, the final stage before democratic elections that will end nearly 100 years of absolute monarchy in the secluded Himalayan country.
The vote caps a whirlwind year of transformation for the tiny kingdom since the monarch declared last December he was abdicating in favor of his 26-year-old son and ushering in democracy. Since then, the people of Bhutan have voted twice in mock elections to ensure they understand the process.
On Monday, more than 300,000 people were expected to vote for members of the National Council, a small group of eminent Bhutanese, which will act as an upper house after parliament is elected in February, said Kunzang Wangdi, Bhutan’s chief election commissioner.
The vote will choose 15 of the council’s 20 elected representatives. Five more will be elected at the end of January - a delay caused by a lack of candidates - and five others will be appointed by the king.
There were 43 candidates for the 15 spots in Monday’s vote. However, not everyone was eligible to stand for election.
Only people over 25 years of age with no party affiliation could run. “Aside from the age, a candidate must possess a bachelor’s degree from a university and must have a crime-free background,” Wangdi told The Associated Press from the capital Thimphu.
The council will act as conduit between the king and parliament on matters of national security and sovereignty.
As in the mock elections earlier this year, international observers from India, the United States, Australia and the United Nations are monitoring the polls to ensure a smooth process, said Wangdi.
Bhutan also shut its borders with India and put its small army on alert to make sure there were no disruptions, he said.
The path toward 2008 parliamentary elections started when former King Jigme Singhye Wangchuck announced he was handing over power to his Oxford-educated son.
Before abdicating he circulated a draft constitution that would end almost 100 years of monarchical rule. Under the plan, which comes into effect after the 2008 elections, the king will become head of state, but parliament will have the power to impeach him by a two-thirds vote.
His successor and son, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, has supervised the transition over the last year, which for many Bhutanese has been an abrupt change.
For decades, Bhutan’s monarchs tried to shield the country - sandwiched between India and China - from the outside world. International media were allowed into the country only in 1974 and television only arrived in 1999.
Only 6,000 foreign tourists are allowed to visit per year, restricted to carefully supervised tours to protect Bhutan’s unique environment and culture.
Smoking is forbidden, and mountain-climbing is banned in order to preserve the pristine forests that cover most of the country.
Even the size of the country’s population is unknown - estimates put it anywhere between 700,000 and 2.2 million people.
While many are apprehensive about the changes that will come to their insular world, few say anything openly except praise for their king.
“What our former majesty has done is unusual in the history of the world,” said Phuntsho Namgyel, one of 10,000 people overseeing the election.
“We are proud to be Bhutanese and proud of our farsighted and benevolent royals who have arranged of their own (accord) to bring in parliamentary democracy to Bhutan,” he said. (AP)
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