Monday, March 24, 2008

Would Gross National Happiness increase under democracy?

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan ended a century of absolute monarchy Monday by electing a staunch royalist as its first prime minister.

The Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party took 44 of the 47 seats in the new Parliament, Election Commissioner Kunzang Wangdi said. The People's Democratic Party won the remaining three seats. Turnout was slightly more than 79% of the 320,000 registered voters. The results will not be official until Tuesday morning.

Jigmi Kinley, who twice served as premier under royal rule, is expected to be named prime minister. Mr. Kinley's Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party was considered the more royalist of the two very royalist political parties in the elections.

The election came with a twist: It was the king, not the people, who pressed for democracy. The democracy process in Bhutan was started by King Jigme Singhye Wangchuck, who abdicated in favor of his son in December 2006. Bhutanese regularly refer to both as "His Majesty."

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

Bhutanese have reason to be ambivalent. The tiny 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. Bhutan has an average annual of income of $1,400 was twice neighboring India's, and nearly all its people had access to schools and hospitals, a rare achievement in this corner of the world. Such success contrasts sharply with South Asian countries like Nepal or Bangladesh, which often seem like case studies in democracy gone wrong -- a fact that left many here dreading the change.

But "we have come to see that this is an opportunity he has given us because he is farsighted and wise," said Karma Dorji. Still, he added, "We prefer our king."

Mr. Kinley was celebrating his landslide -- his party took 44 of the 47 parliament seats -- in remote eastern Bhutan on Monday. The party's spokesman, Palden Tshering, called the win a "victory for His Majesty." Mr. Kinley is likely to be named prime minister soon. The king, 28-year-old Jigme Keshar Namgyal Wangchuck, will remain head of state and likely retain much influence.

Mr. Kinley's party, like the opposition, hews closely to the king's vision. Both vow to follow the latest five-year plan – called "His Majesty's vision" -- and promote Gross National Happiness, an all-encompassing political philosophy that seeks to balance material progress with spiritual well-being.

Known by its people as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan's snowcapped peaks and mountainside monasteries have long intrigued Westerners in search of a Buddhist nirvana. But the kingdom is, in many ways, a strikingly conformist place where the outside word is viewed warily and self-promotion and confrontation are frowned upon.

Bhutan's election campaign was exceedingly mild by the standards of other democracies with candidates more likely to compliment competitors than criticize them. But there were ugly moments. One party accused the other of vote buying (it was actually paying its workers); a candidate charged his opponent with trying to influence powerful monks by having his wife donate a butter lamp to a monastery.

-Bhutan Holds Its First Parliamentary Vote

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