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.
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.
Moreover, Bhutan remains relatively underdeveloped by most international standards, though it has made admirable strides in recent years. While its economy remains relatively non-industrialized and agricultural (perhaps not necessarily a negative attribute under alternative ‘happiness’ perspectives), its life expectancy has jumped by 20 years in the past two decades, incomes have skyrocketed, and health care and education have improved in leaps and bounds. That’s in large part due to its explosive growth — gross national happiness, for the past 20 years, has harmoniously aligned with gross national product as well, and the Bhutan hasn’t reported less than 5% GDP growth since 1991. Although Bhutan depends on India for its exports (and its currency is fixed to the Indian rupee), including a robust hydroelectric power exporting capability, its economic fortunes have risen even higher than those in India on a per capita basis.
The DPT won the first elections five years ago with 45 out of 47 seats, and the opposition PDP won just two seats — the leaders of both parties had previously served as appointed prime ministers, both parties are essentially royalist and both parties are in favor of the governing ‘Gross National Happiness’ mantra. The PDP’s leader at the time, Sangay Ngedup, had even closer ties to the monarchy than the DPT’s leader — four of his five sisters are married to Bhutan’s former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who abdicated in favor of his son in 2008 as well.
This time around, four parties were competing in the first round, including the ruling DPT, the opposition PDP and two new center-left parties. While the DPT placed first with 44.52% of the vote and placed first in 33 out of 47 constituencies, it will face the opposition PDP, which received 32.53% of the vote, in the second round. Bhutan’s two new center-left parties together won 22.94%, which means that means that the ‘change voters’ of the two new parties could potentially tip the winner of the runoff — and Bhutan’s next government.
The DPT’s leader, Jigme Thinley, who is Bhutan’s first elected prime minister, is hoping to win reelection for another term, despite the fact that the party’s vice president was involved in a corrupt land transaction last year and that the country is still feeling the negative effect of a rupee shortage, which has hindered Bhutanese imports (nearly three-quarters of the country’s imports come from India). But Thinley remains one of the country’s more popular politicians and his government has helped develop utilities, roads and other infrastructure for a country that remains 65% rural, it has not diverted Bhutan’s solid economic expansion, and it has nurtured a transition from monarchy to bona-fide democracy that, despite some bumps, has been unfurled more or less with success.