Culture and democracy in Bhutan

politics and culture — By on April 24, 2007 at 2:04 pm

It’s easy in the West for us to assume the democracy is a natural state of government, or at least something that people in every country long for. That’s why I was intrigued by an article about Bhutan in the International Herald Tribune. It seems that the king of Bhutan has decided his Himalayan country is ready for more democracy, but the people are embracing it warily –  in some cases only because it has been ordered by the king!

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who recently announced his plan to abdicate, has ordered parliamentary elections for next year. In preparation for the real thing, more than 125,000 Bhutanese citizens participated Saturday in what the government called “mock elections” …

The Bhutanese monarchy turns 100 this year, and Jigme apparently decided this was an auspicious time to further reduce its power. The national elections next year are part of a process that began nearly a decade ago, when the king introduced party-less elections to choose members of Parliament. Next, day-to-day governance was handed over to the Council of Ministers. The proposed Constitution would remove the king as head of the government, set a mandatory retirement age for the monarch at 65, and empower an elected Parliament to oust the king altogether with a two-thirds majority vote…

The prospect of self-governance seemed to send shivers down many spines here. Why have politicians? people wanted to know. Wasn’t the king always supposed to know what is best for his people and guide them accordingly? Couldn’t they see what democracy had wrought on neighboring countries?

“I’m a little bit skeptical,” Sonam Wangmo said as she waited in line Saturday to cast her vote in a neighborhood school with calla lilies blooming in the garden. “I’m not sure whether it will work, or whether it will be better for our country.”

Many Bhutanese seem cautious about embracing democracy, if only because they believe things are already going well in their country and they don’t feel a need to embrace change.

“The going is good,” said Tshering Tobgay, 42, a retired civil servant who is working with a former cabinet minister to start the People’s Democratic Party. “We want more of the same.”

This is one reason, he said, that even would-be politicians like himself find it hard to sell their message to the citizenry. “We are not starting a party because we have an ideology. We’re not starting a party because we have a vision for a better Bhutan. We are starting a party because the king has ordered us.”

He sat on the patio of a bar, cupping his beer can in a napkin, because this was Friday and alcohol sales were prohibited on the day before the election. “It’s a big compliment to the king that no one’s very enthusiastic.”

Another patron in the bar, Kesang Dorji, 36, said he was puzzled by the royal order to vote, but intended to obey. “We have to stand fast to the wisdom of our monarch,” Dorji said. “He knows what’s best for us. Any normal person would think, ‘Why this, when everything is okay?”‘

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