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Bhutan's Reluctant Road To Democracy

The secluded Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, a land that has made promoting happiness its paramount goal, was ending more than a century of royal rule Monday with its first parliamentary elections.

And no one, apart from 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, only allowing the Internet and television in 1999 and coming up with the idea of Gross National Happiness, an all-encompassing political philosophy that seeks to balance material progress with spiritual well-being.

Unlike the upheavals that have so often been the midwives of democracy around the world, Bhutan has never been more peaceful or prosperous; it's 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, the king, 28-year-old Jigme Keshar Namgyal Wangchuck, will remain head of state and will likely retain much influence.

But elected leaders will be in charge, a fact that worries many here who have seen the disastrous democracies in nearby Nepal and Bangladesh, as well as the often corrupt and chaotic political scene in neighboring 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 hew closely to the king's vision, promoting Gross National Happiness and featuring leaders who each twice served as prime minister under royal rule.

Monday's 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 like Tibet and Sikkim were coming under the sway of foreign powers, and Bhutan - sandwiched between Asian giants India and China - decided that it needed to change to survive.

"In the past, the strategy was to hide up in the mountains," said Dorji, the newspaper editor.

Not anymore. The country of about 600,000 people now has a cash economy. It's even likely to soon join the World Trade Organization and thousands of tourists are welcomed every year, albeit on heavily supervised and expensive tours.

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

But this dedication to preserving Bhutanese culture has a darker side.

More than 100,000 ethnic Nepalis - a Hindu minority concentrated in southern Bhutan - were forced out in the early 1990s and have been living as refugees in eastern Nepal.

Bhutan says most left voluntarily, and refugee rebel groups have set off at least nine small bomb blasts this year in an effort to disrupt the election, killing one person. To head off more attacks, Bhutan sealed its borders Sunday and said it will not reopen them until after the vote.

Tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis still live in Bhutan - 19 are candidates - but the fate of the refugees has not been an issue because parties are barred from speaking about matters of security or citizenship. They also cannot talk about the royal family.

With arguably the most contentious issue out of bounds, the campaign, which ended Saturday, has been exceedingly mild with most candidates more likely to compliment their competitors than criticize them.

Many have found the whole exercise needlessly disruptive.

"Why do we need these people and their arguments?" asked 48-year-old 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."

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