Bhutan holds only its second election in history with initial round of parliamentary vote


No country on the planet has quite tried to tip-toe so selectively into the modern world like the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, a landlocked nation at the foothills of the Himalayas between northeastern India and Chinese Tibet. bhutan

For a country that permitted television and internet only for the first time in 1999, Bhutan has gently turned from an absolute monarchy to a form of constitutional monarchy, beginning in 2008 with the enactment of a formal constitution and the first-ever elections in the country’s history.

Voters in the small country, with around one million residents, voted for a new parliament for just the second time in Bhutanese history on Friday in the first round of a two-part vote — and with results back by mid-day Saturday, Bhutan’s election commission proved that it could tally election results faster than the Italian authorities counted last week’s Rome municipal election.  That’s measurable progress for Bhutan — despite the country’s notoriety for measuring ‘Gross National Happiness,’ its reputation as a high-end tourism destination and, all too often, a one-dimensional international image as a ‘Buddhist Shangri-La,’ it’s hardly without its challenges.

Following the first of two rounds of parliamentary elections on May 31, the top two parties will advance to a second round later on July 13 to determine the composition of the country’s Gyelyong Tshogdu (National Assembly), a 47-member body that comprises the lower house of the Bhutanese parliament.  Members of the 25-seat Gyelyong Tshogde (National Council), the upper house, were determined earlier in April.

The governing Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, DPT, འབྲུག་ཕུན་སུམ་ཚོགས་པ) and the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP, མི་སེར་དམངས་གཙོའི་ཚོགས་པ་) will advance to those runoffs after seeing off two new parties in Friday’s first round.

The Bhutanese government serves under the monarchial guidance of Bhutan’s Druk Gyalpo (འབྲུག་རྒྱལ་པོ, its ‘dragon king’), the country’s monarchical head of state, who since 2008 has been the youthful Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (pictured above, left).  Though Bhutan has been a unified and independent country since the 18th century, the current monarchy dates back to only 1907, and prior to the institution of the House of Wangchuck as the hereditary monarchy, Bhutan had a dual system of government between secular and religious authorities.  Although the British treated Bhutan as a semi-colonized entity and, from 1949 until 2007, India ostensibly guided Bhutanese foreign relations as a formal matter under the Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty, Bhutan has in practice been essentially independent since its unification as a nation in the 1700s.

Bhutan’s previous king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, took steps upon his coronation in 1972 to bring Bhutan into the modern world only a year after it formally joined the United Nations. He’s most well-known perhaps globally for coining the concept of ‘Gross National Happiness,’ a subjective alternative to strict economic measures like gross domestic product growth and other vectors of development.  The ‘Gross National Happiness’ standard tries to incorporate economic development alongside spiritual development in line with Buddhist teaching — notably through sustainable development, environmental conservation, the promotion of cultural values and good governance.

Those standards, however, have led to results that might seem incongruent under Western standards of good governance.  While Jigme Singye Wangchuck ultimately paved the way to greater democracy through the introduction of constitutional monarchy, he also introduced a national dress code in 1990, mandating that every Bhutanese citizen wear national dress — a gho, a colorful three-quarter robe, for men, and a kira, a full-body version, for women.  It’s also led to the government excluding Nepalese minorities (many of whom are Hindu, not Buddhist) in Bhutan, the Lhotshampa, from the country in the 1990s, many of whom still remain in refugee camps in Nepal under United Nations supervision, rejected from citizenship by either Bhutan or Nepal.  Finding a lasting solution for the remaining refugees should be one of the next Bhutanese government’s top priorities.  In addition, the Lhotshampa who remain in southern Bhutan remain subject to the same laws as the Bhutanese majority, including cultural laws and universal education in the dominant Dzongkha language, despite the fact that the Lhotshampa speak Nepali instead. In many cases, Bhutan’s government continues to deem them illegal immigrants. Continue reading Bhutan holds only its second election in history with initial round of parliamentary vote

Hand-wringing over Erdoğan is alarmist, but Turkey’s still trapped in a perilous standoff



The images from Taksim Square over the past week, culminating in conflict between protesters and Turkish police authorities, have stunned a global community that’s used to thinking of Turkey — and, in particular, Istanbul — as a relatively tranquil secular meeting point of East and West.Turkey

Although I’ve not written much about Turkey through Suffragio, it’s a fascinating country that I was delighted to visit in 2010, at the height of the glory days of the government of its current (and now embattled) prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Ultimately, there are two questions at issue here: how to evaluate Erdoğan’s performance prior to the recent protests, on the one hand, and how to evaluate Erdoğan’s performance during and in response to the protests, on the other hand.

Although Western commentators have increasingly argued of Erdoğan’s move toward increasing Islamization and authoritarianism, I worry that those calls misunderstand the depth of Erdoğan’s support and the nature of what modern Turkey (it is, after all, a country that’s over 98% Muslim) has become today.  But it is impossible to watch Erdoğan’s repression of basic political freedoms, such as his government’s recent moves to disrupt a planned May Day protest, and the ongoing brutal police response to the Taksim Square and increasingly, nationwide, protests without admitting that whatever legitimacy Erdoğan once enjoyed is rapidly dissipating, and Erdoğan, his government, Turkey’s president, Turkey’s military, and Turkey’s awakened — and rightfully angry — protest movement, are all trapped in a suddenly perilous standoff.

It’s all the more fragile given the ongoing civil war in Syria.  Not only has the Erdoğan government been unsuccessful in persuading one-time ally Bashar al-Assad to pursue a more moderate course, the growing number of refugees from Syria within Turkey’s borders means that Turkey risks being drawn into a wider regional conflict (though, in one of the few humorous asides to the ongoing protests, Syria has now issued a travel warning for Turkey).

Erdoğan’s initial position was legitimate and democratic

When Steven Cook wrote in The Atlantic earlier this month, that ‘while Turkey is perhaps more democratic than it was 20 years ago, it is less open than it was eight years ago,’ I had two initial reactions.  First and foremost, shouldn’t we care more, from a pure governance standard, that Turkey’s government is representative and responsive to its electorate than it hews to some Westernized standard of ‘openness’? What does ‘less open’ even mean? Secondly, when Cook laments Turkey’s ‘less open’ nature, he doesn’t equally lament that the European Union virtually slammed the door in the face of Turkey’s application to join the European Union in 2005, when despite the opening of negotiations for Turkish accession, it became clear any road for Turkey’s EU membership would be long and arduous.  It may be difficult to remember today, but it’s a push that Erdoğan’s government made even more passionately than the governments that preceded it.

Turkey, let’s be clear, didn’t leave Europe.  Europe left Turkey, which has focused on becoming a more important regional player in the Middle East in recent years.

More importantly, from a day-to-day perspective for most Turks, Erdoğan ushered Turkey into a new era of economic reform and modernity, partly due to his enthusiasm to enter the European Union in his first term.  But despite the futility of Erdoğan’s initial rationale, Turkey’s economic gains are real, the country certainly remains under much better economic stewardship than Greece or much of Europe:

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But Cook, and similar analysts, I fear, are not placing enough weight on the fact that Erdoğan has delivered Turkey’s most responsive and democratically accountable government since the foundation of the modern Republic of Turkey in 1923.  And when I read critiques of Erdoğan that cast him as a modern-day ‘sultan,’ I have to cringe because it’s intellectually lazy for opponents to slap Orientalist labels on Erdoğan simply because they disagree with his policy choices.

The Economist on Sunday trumpeted a foreign diplomat who argues that ‘this is not about secularists versus Islamists—it’s about pluralism versus authoritarianism,’ though the question remains — pluralism compared to what? The governments that came before Erdoğan?  Some Western fantasy of what Turkey’s government should be?

Erdoğan is neither a sultan nor a dictator, but the duly elected leader of Turkey’s government for over a decade, enjoying the repeated success of consecutive democratic victories in election after election.

Continue reading Hand-wringing over Erdoğan is alarmist, but Turkey’s still trapped in a perilous standoff