New democracy born in Himalayas

politics and culture — By on March 27, 2008 at 7:15 am

This past week saw a unique event in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, as residents trekked to the polls for the first time in the country’s history at the behest of the king, who voluntarily decided to give up royal power in order to move his country towards a democratic future. The Washington Post has the story:

Without revolution or bloodshed, this tiny Himalayan kingdom became the world’s newest democracy Monday, as wildflower farmers, traditional healers, Buddhist folk artists and computer engineers voted in their country’s first parliamentary elections, ending a century of absolute monarchy.

In a historic event for this country of 700,000, entire families took to winding mountain roads, traveling in some cases for days in minivans, on horseback and on foot to cast their ballots, marking Bhutan’s transition to a constitutional monarchy.

Despite concerns that Bhutanese would be turned off by the rough-and-tumble world of politics, more than 79 percent of the estimated 318,000 registered voters turned out at polling places.

It was the king, as well as his father and predecessor, who ordered his subjects to vote, in the belief that democracy would foster stability in a country wedged between China and India and known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon…

Before abdicating the throne to his son in 2006, the country’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, had taken methodical steps to give power to the people, saying that he believed no leader should be “chosen by birth instead of merit.”

As part of his “gross national happiness” plan, he reformed the country’s feudal system, giving land and jobs to the poorest farmers and launching free health and education systems. He and his Harvard- and Oxford-educated son, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, remain immensely popular. Many Bhutanese still refer to both father and son as “His Majesty.”…

The fifth king, who is 28, will remain commander in chief of the army and will be able to appoint five members to the upper house of parliament. Many Bhutanese said they hoped his opinions would continue to carry enormous weight.

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