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A royal rush for reluctant electorate

Times Staff Writer

In this idyllic Himalayan country that measures progress by its “gross national happiness” index, the stoplight just didn’t cut it.

Residents here in the capital complained that Bhutan’s one and only automated traffic signal was too impersonal. It got taken down. Now, a white-gloved police officer gracefully directs motorists.

A lone man in charge: That’s what most Bhutanese want when it comes to how their entire country is run, not merely a single intersection. But their beloved king, the man in question, has other ideas.

On Monday, Bhutan is set to become the world’s newest democracy, with the first general elections in the history of this isolated Buddhist kingdom. At the heart of this brave new world lies a paradox: It is people power by royal decree. The Bhutanese are choosing their leaders because, essentially, they were told to by their king.

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He intends to bow out as an absolute ruler and turn Bhutan into a modern constitutional monarchy. But the changes afoot have produced deep ambivalence in a traditional, largely rural populace more inclined to see democracy as a Pandora’s box apt to bring dissension and other nasty influences to their placid, cohesive society.

“I feel maybe we’re too early for democracy,” said Wangchuk Wangdi, 47, a tour operator who was dressed for work one morning in a colorful striped gho, the traditional knee-length robe worn by Bhutanese men. “Till now, we’ve been under five kings. All have been good.”

Few people here seem particularly thrilled about the prospect of governing themselves, preferring to remain subjects under direct rule by the Golden Throne, which has guided the Land of the Thunder Dragon for the last 101 years. But spurred by devotion and duty to the king, they say they will do their best to fulfill his vision of a shiny new Bhutan.

“We are reluctant democrats,” said Sonam Tobgay Dorji, a candidate for parliament. “It’s been forced on us, and we have to embrace it.”

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In many ways, the carefully planned transition to democracy is the most daring leap into modernity for a country whose diplomatic and physical isolation had, in the eyes of most residents, been pretty splendid for much of its history.

Sandwiched between Asia’s two giants, India and China, Bhutan has fiercely guarded its independence and held itself aloof from the rest of the world, establishing ties with only a handful of nations, which do not include the United States. Its population of fewer than 700,000 citizens lives in an area barely twice the size of Vermont. Most are devout practitioners of a form of Buddhism believed to have been introduced to Bhutan in the 8th century by a guru who arrived on the back of a flying tiger.

Television, including satellite channels, and the Internet were gingerly allowed in only in the last decade, and only after great debate. Even then, authorities banned MTV and a sports channel that broadcast professional wrestling because of their potentially deleterious effect on youth.

Protecting Bhutan’s spectacular natural environment -- glacial lakes, fertile valleys and towering forests of blue pine, oak and cypress -- is one of the pillars of public policy here. So is preservation of its cultural heritage, which includes the elegant native dress, the Dzongkha language and, many say, the Buddhism-inspired social harmony that is now under threat from the evils of Western-style party politics.

“It frightens me,” said Dorji Yangki, 18, as she hung out with friends in the main square in Thimphu. Like many youths here, she likes her fashions new and hip, such as bluejeans and sneakers -- but not her politics.

“Democracy is just starting right now,” Yangki said. “We can see the candidates fighting, and it’s just the beginning.”

Newspapers have shuddered at the negative campaigning between the two new parties: the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, or DPT, and the People’s Democratic Party, or PDP.

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But even Bhutan’s gloves-off politicking seems more akin to a sandbox squabble than the vicious mudslinging common in the West: A typical dispute centers on one party’s attempt to use yellow in its logo, which the other side indignantly points out is the king’s color.

In reality, very little separates the two parties. Neither dares deviate from the blueprint for increasing “GNH” -- gross national happiness -- laid out by the king, based on sustainable development.

“Bhutanese politics is still without ideology,” said the Harvard-educated Sonam Tobgay Dorji, a candidate for the People’s Democratic Party. “So basically, what people are looking at is what candidates can deliver.”

The politicians’ promises are of the usual kind in the developing world: more roads, reliable electricity, better sanitation, safe drinking water.

But to an electorate afraid of change, both parties also preach stability. The DPT, whose slate of nominees boasts five former ministers in the royal government, promotes itself as the safest hands for an uncertain time, while the PDP projects a younger, more dynamic image, a party able to “walk the talk,” as its slogan goes. The leader of the party that wins a majority of the 47 parliamentary seats will be Bhutan’s first elected prime minister.

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This may well be one of the most micro-managed elections on Earth, with officials eager to regulate almost every aspect of the process to ensure the smoothest, most harmonious outcome possible. They even held a mock election last year to prepare voters.

There are rules on fund-raising limits, the size of posters, where they can be displayed, what goodies can be handed out to voters, how the parties ought to treat each other (only “constructive criticism,” please). Candidates must have a college degree, which drastically shrinks the available pool. Monks are ineligible to vote, in order to keep religious institutions and figures above politics.

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The parties are also barred from campaigning on matters of “security” or “citizenship” -- code words for Bhutan’s most intractable issue, its population of ethnic Nepalese. A crackdown on “illegal immigrants” by the king more than a decade ago resulted in tens of thousands of Nepali speakers fleeing the country.

Independent observers are monitoring participation in the election process by ethnic Nepalese who stayed behind.

No one knows with certainty why Bhutan’s fourth “Dragon King,” Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decided a few years ago that the time had come to limit the monarchy and impose democracy. (The monarchy was established in 1907 after centuries of feuding between chieftains and religious leaders.) Turbulent experiments in democracy -- and dismal results -- in some other South Asian countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh were less than encouraging.

On his nationwide tour to explain his decision, some of his subjects wept and begged him to reconsider. Almost to a person, the Bhutanese credit the king’s wisdom and ability for the impressive strides in literacy rates, life expectancy and other social indicators the nation has made since he inherited the “Raven Crown” as a teenager in 1972.

New hydroelectric projects, partly funded by energy-hungry India, which buys up all the power, are bringing in much-needed revenue to what remains a fairly poor country of mostly small farmers who plant rice, wheat and other crops. Annual per capita income is more than $1,400 -- high for the region but low by international standards.

Some speculate that the example of another Himalayan kingdom may have triggered the push for democratic reform. In April 2006, a violent popular revolt forced the king of Nepal to end absolute rule; that country now stands on the verge of abolishing the monarchy altogether.

In Bhutan, the royal palace has, in effect, opted for peaceful evolution now rather than possible revolution later. After setting the democratic process in motion, the fourth king abdicated in December 2006, handing the throne to his Oxford-educated son, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, then 26.

“We are blessed to do this peacefully, literally as a gift from the king. Everywhere else it’s at the point of a gun,” said Ugyen Tshering, a candidate for the DPT in north Thimphu.

For 10 days, Tshering hiked and rode horseback to visit the more remote parts of his constituency, pressing the flesh in three far-flung villages with about 300 voters, out of an overall roll of 4,888.

“Every ballot is going to count,” he said one afternoon while out canvassing a hillside of whitewashed mud-and-wood homes just a few miles, as the tiger flies, from central Thimphu. Campaigning “wasn’t something we were used to. It took a little time to get into the rhythm of it.”

Now, putting aside the characteristic Bhutanese modesty that frowns on self-promotion, he waves down passing cars and motorcycles to introduce himself. He shakes hands. He sips tea in living rooms. At a silversmith’s house, he gamely climbs a narrow staircase that is little more than a hollowed-out tree trunk.

Everyone who receives him is unfailingly polite. Some are bewildered. Few give any inkling as to what they think. There are no opinion polls.

“The Bhutanese people are consummate diplomats,” said candidate Dorji, who is running in south Thimphu. “They listen to both sides, but none of us can get inside their minds.”

Wangdi, the tour operator, has not been impressed with any of those who would be his new leaders. “People can yap and convince and talk,” he said, “but when it comes to the realities, we don’t know if they can handle it.”

He hasn’t made up his mind which party to support, but he plans to cast a vote Monday anyway.

It’s what the king would want.

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henry.chu@latimes.com


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