Bhutan becomes newest democracy

The small Himalayan country of Bhutan became the world's newest democracy Monday when voters cast ballots in the nation's first parliamentary elections.

The small Himalayan country of Bhutan became the world's newest democracy Monday when voters cast ballots in the nation's first parliamentary elections.

The Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party, viewed as the more royalist of two groups running for parliament, took 44 of the 47 seats, election commissioner Kunzang Wangdi said. The People's Democratic Party won the remaining three seats.

Turnout was more than 79 per cent of the 320,000 registered voters, Wangdi said. The results will not be official until Tuesday morning.

The vote ended more than a century of absolute monarchy in the mountainous land long known as a quirky holdout from modernity, allowing television and the internet only in 1999.

The election came with a twist: it was the country's king, not the people, who pressed for democracy.

"His Majesty is like our father. We all prefer our father," said Karma Tsheweng, a 35-year-old mechanic.

But Tsheweng and hundreds of thousands of others nonetheless lined up at polling stations across the Land of the Thunder Dragon to vote Monday, excited at getting to try something new, but nervous about what may happen after they've traded their Precious Ruler for politicians.

Voting machines delivered by yak

Even in remote corners of the largely rural country — in tiny hamlets where voting machines were delivered by yak — the election went smoothly, officials said.

Bhutanese have reason to be ambivalent. The small country of about 600,000 people has prospered under royal rule. Its fast-growing economy is slowly lifting many people out of poverty and nearly everyone has access to schools and hospitals.

The success contrasts with other South Asian countries, such as Nepal and Bangladesh, which seem like case studies in democracy gone awry. Even in neighbouring India, democracy is a chaotic and corrupt affair that has done little to provide decent education or medical care for many of its 1.1 billion people.

The democracy process in Bhutan was started by King Jigme Singhye Wangchuck, who abdicated in favour of his son in December 2006. Bhutanese regularly refer to both as "His Majesty."

"There was much resistance when His Majesty told us that we must decide our future if Bhutan was to prosper," said Karma Dorji, a 55-year-old civil servant who was waiting to vote.

That was in late 2006 and since then "we have come to see that this is an opportunity he has given us because he is far-sighted and wise," Dorji said. Still, he said: "We prefer our king."

Apart from trepidation about the future, the campaign for the 47-seat National Assembly has also been baffling for many in a society that frowns on self-promotion and open criticism.

"Why do we need these people and their arguments?" asked 48-year-old Kinzang Tshering after listening to one candidate make his spiel days before the vote. "They tell us they are better than the other ones. How should I know which one is better?"