South Asia Features
Bhutan builds democracy amid doubts, concerns
By Siddhartha Kumar Nov 15, 2011, 12:52 GMT
Thimphu - As the winter sun sets over the streets of the capital Thimphu, the signs of Bhutan's modernization are few and far between.
In nearby paddy fields, the evening mist settles as farmers gather their tools and head home. Inside the city, most of the shops and establishments are closed by nightfall.
The tranquil, isolated nation of 700,000 has only allowed tourists since 1971. But it is being haltingly dragged into the 21st century by its forward-looking monarchy, sometimes reluctantly.
The Wangchuck dynasty, which chose to keep the country isolated for a hundred years, has in recent years been turning it into one of the world's youngest democracies.
In 2008 it held the country's first general election, two years after current king Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck's father abdicated to make way for democracy and devolve power to the parliament.
Jigme Khesar's coronation the same year came with newly introduced constitutional caveats, such as the possible removal of the monarch by a two-thirds majority in parliament.
Democracy and other changes - including the growth of a free press and constitutional institutions - are slowly taking root as the nation gradually opens up to the world.
But many Bhutanese have reservations about their newfound democracy, and some have questioned its utility.
There is a widespread wariness of politicians, after recent corruption scandals, such as a medical procurement scandal involving 300 million ngultrum (6 million dollar), have raised concerns about standards of governance.
'It is this distrust about politicians. People feel they could create corruption and other complications,' said Phuntsok Wangdi, a 20-year-old student on Norzim Lam, Thimphu's main avenue.
'I prefer kingship. Bhutan's stability and progress is due to the monarchy's rule that promoted development, environmental conservation and our culture.'
People's love for the monarchy has soared in recent months. But even back in 2006, Bhutanese were reluctant to lost the absolute monarchy and many even wept, pleading with former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck not to relinquish any power.
Recently, tens of thousands joined national celebrations for the wedding of Jigme Khesar - seen as more of a people's King than his reserved father - showing the monarchy has grown still more popular.
'If there were a crisis, people would turn to the king, not any other leader,' a senior government official said, on condition of anonymity. 'I am a staunch royalist, and well, so are our two political parties.'
Unlike transitions to democracy that usually come about rapidly in opposition to the state, changes in Bhutan are being instigated by a reigning monarch at a pace society can accept.
The king has been shepherding the fledgling democracy by overseeing the growth of key institutions. He is an important part of Bhutanese democracy and not merely a symbolic monarch, Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley said.
Many changes are accompanying the advent of democracy in Bhutan, including the emergence of a free press that exposes government corruption, which was not possible a few years ago.
An new, independent judiciary has also cut its teeth, overturning the cabinet's decision to raise taxes in the country's first constitutional case last year.
Institutions are asserting themselves with intense debates and tussles within the parliament and government agencies over laws and policy.
But 'formidable challenges' remain on the path to fully functional democracy, opposition leader Tshering Tobgay said. 'It is up to the politicians, civil society and institutions to make democracy work.'
How the country deals with challenges of development, cultural diversity and modernization will determine its future, said Tashi Dorje, editor of the Business Bhutan daily.
'Democracy is a work in progress. We are yet to see how it evolves and how Bhutan fares in this crucial period of transition.'
Bhutan's young monarch recently admitted to journalists that democracy is at a nascent stage.
'We are in the process of strengthening institutions, with a focus on good governance,' said the king, who in an ombudsman-like role also ensures people's grievances are addressed by the new ministries.
The Dragon King said he is always careful not to cross the line between personal ambitions and the country's interests. 'My main ambition is to work as hard as I can for my people,' he said.
His own respect for the new government's structures, and the royal endorsement of the democratic experiment overall, perhaps give it its best chance of success. 'After all,' said Tshering Tobgay, 'it is a sacred duty entrusted to us by our king.'