Bhutan holds hotly debated elections
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Long ruled by the Wangchuck family, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is holding its first democratic elections on Monday. With the two main candidates locked in a tight race, electoral bickering is at an all time high. (Story: S. Silke)
Bhutan's shift from absolute monarchy to the world's newest democracy is creating unprecedented rifts as people row over which party to vote for in next week's elections, observers say.
The isolated Buddhist kingdom, perched in the Himalayas between India and China, has long stressed community bonding, but divisions ahead of the elections are creating serious problems, they say.
Political tempers are running so high "people aren't talking to each other" even though there are no major ideological differences between the two major parties competing for power, said Tashi Dorji, editor of Bhutan Observer.
"It's happening throughout the country," Dorji said in an interview in the capital Thimpu.
Nearly 70 percent of the population of under 700,000 live in remote mountain villages and the two main parties competing to form Bhutan's first elected government are in a tight race.
A family of six fled their house after one son threatened to burn down the house in a drunken rage if they did not support the party of his choice, the weekly Bhutan Observer reported.
In another sign of disharmony, a nephew and an uncle are pitted against each other, dividing the village where they live into two camps.
Such discord is unfamiliar in insular Bhutan, whose famous "gross national happiness" index takes precedence over gross national product (GNP).
The country is staging multi-party elections for a lower house, ending rule by the hugely popular King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, whose family has governed Bhutan for a century.
The king took over in 2006 after his father Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated as part of his plan to gradually introduce democracy to the country. Last year the nation held "mock elections" as a dress rehearsal for the real polls.
"For the first time, the Bhutanese are confronting each other. But once the polls are over, we will mature politically," said Kinley Dorji, managing director of the national Kuensel bi-weekly newspaper.
"People are naive as elections are happening for the first time," Bhutan Observer's Tashi Dorji said.
Politicians have expressed concern over the new schisms.
"The first task (after the elections) will be to ensure that the community is not divided too much," said Ugyen Tshering, who is running as a candidate.
A reluctance by many Bhutanese to embrace self-governance has receded after a vigorous campaign by the king and his father to explain to citizens why constitutional democracy is better than hereditary rule.
"I don't want the country to change but the king has decided these elections are for the good of the country," said vegetable farmer Kapa Wangdi.
While some voters have their minds made up, others are unsure about which candidate to vote for as both the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) or Bhutan United Party are running on similar platforms, stressing better roads and economic development.
Voters are taking sides based on such factors as the candidate's personality and past track record and sometimes whether they are related to the candidate.
The PDP is seeking to differentiate itself by carving out an image of being a young, modern party, and has nominated doctors, engineers and other professionals as candidates.
The other party, the DPT, is fielding former ministers in the royal government set up by the king as a precursor to full democracy and boasting it has better experience to lead the nation.
"The parties have no ideology, no issues, so people are going to vote for their neighbour," said the Observer's Dorji.
Some Bhutanese, however, are just trying to preserve harmony.
"In my uncle's family, two people will vote for one party and two for another party so nobody is offended," said Mani Lhamo, a househouse help in Thimphu.