King of Bhutan gives up his absolute monarchy

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, a land that has made promoting happiness its paramount goal, ends more than a century of royal rule today with its first parliamentary elections. And no one, except the King who is giving up his power, seems happy about it.

Candidates proudly call themselves monarchists. Party workers describe the vote as "heartbreaking". Voters fret about what will become of the Land of the Thunder Dragon when it trades its Precious Ruler for politicians.

Bhutan has long been an eccentric holdout from modernity. A mountainous land where Buddhist kings reigned supreme, it only allowed the internet and television in 1999. It is perhaps most famous for gross national happiness, an all-encompassing political philosophy that seeks to balance material progress with spiritual well-being.

The election is, in some respects, no different. Unlike so many other countries, where upheaval has been midwife to democracy, Bhutan has never been more peaceful or prosperous; it is only voting because the king said it should.

"No one wants this election," said Yeshi Zimba, one of the candidates, as he campaigned door-to-door in the capital, Thimpu. "His Majesty has guided us this far, and people are asking, 'Why change now?'" After the election, King Jigme Keshar Namgyal Wangchuck, 28, will remain head of state and will probably retain much influence. But elected leaders will be in charge, a fact that worries many here who have seen the disastrous democracies in Nepal and Bangladesh, as well as the often corrupt and chaotic politics in neighbouring India.

"People were looking around at what is happening in south Asia and saying, 'No thank you'," said Kinley Dorji, who runs the state-owned newspaper, Kuensel. "But His Majesty said you can't leave such a small, vulnerable country in the hands of only one man who was chosen by birth and not by merit."

The Bhutanese are not so sure, and the two political parties both stick closely to the king's vision, promoting gross national happiness and featuring leaders who each served twice as prime minister under royal rule. On one side stands Sangay Ngedup, 58, the brother of one of the king's four wives. On the other stands Jigmi Thinley, 56, a man who helped put flesh on the king's concept of gross national happiness.

"Why do we need these people and their arguments?" asked Kinzang Tshering after listening to one candidate's pitch. "They tell us they are better than the other ones. How should I know which one is better? I think His Majesty is better."

The vote for the 47-seat National Assembly is the latest step in a slow engagement with the world, which Bhutan began in the early 1960s. Back then, Bhutan was a medieval society with no paved roads, no electricity and no hospitals. Goods were bartered rather than bought, and almost no foreigners were let in.

But across the Himalayas, other isolated Buddhist kingdoms such as Tibet and Sikkim were coming under the sway of foreign powers, and Bhutan – sandwiched between India and China – decided it needed to change to survive.

"In the past, the strategy was to hide up in the mountains," said Mr Dorji. Not any more. The country of about 600,000 people now has a cash economy. It is even likely to join the World Trade Organisation soon and thousands of tourists are welcomed every year, albeit on heavily supervised and expensive tours.

Bhutan retains many of its peculiar ways. Mountain climbing is banned to preserve the pristine forests that laws dictate must cover 60 per cent of the country. Bhutanese must go about in public in their national dress: a colourfully striped knee-length robe for men and an embroidered silk jacket with a wraparound skirt for women.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...