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Bhutan to begin voting on second ever government

29 may 2013, 11:03
0
 Bhutanease residents queue as they wait to cast their votes. ©AFP
Bhutanease residents queue as they wait to cast their votes. ©AFP
Voters in the isolated Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan will begin electing their second ever government this week, five years after the country's Buddhist "dragon kings" gave way to democracy, AFP reports.

The electorate of less than 400,000 people will choose from four parties on Friday when the primary round of voting for the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, commences.

The two most popular parties will then contest a run-off round on July 13 to form the next government.

Bhutan, which is landlocked by Asian giants India to the south and China to the north, held its first election in 2008 after the monarchy ceded absolute power and actively led the move to a parliamentary democracy.

In the 2008 vote, the centre-right Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), drawn from the country's traditional elite, won a huge landslide and secured 45 of 47 seats available against the People's Democratic Party.

This time two new centre-left parties, both led by women, are joining the contest, but the well-established DPT is generally expected to win by a small margin -- although opinion polls are banned.

A rule that allows only graduates to stand for office has created difficulties for the new parties in their search for recruits, with a fifth party disqualified over its lack of candidates.

"I think the DPT will get through because of the (pro-)incumbency factor," a political analyst in the capital Thimphu told AFP, declining to be named.

He said Bhutan's huge development under the DPT, especially the building of roads and provision of electricity to rural areas, made the party popular in a nation where more than 40 percent of people depend on agriculture and forestry.

Jigmi Y. Thinley, the incumbent prime minister, is also the only leading candidate who can speak in Bhutan's many local dialects, which could help him win more support in remote corners of the country.

The DPT is unlikely to repeat its 2008 landslide win, analysts say, as it faces more competition amid concerns over corruption, youth unemployment and a rupee liquidity crunch under the party's watch.

Bhutan is heavily dependent on India for aid, investment and the majority of its imports, leading supplies of the Indian rupee to run out last year due to too much demand. Bhutan's ngultrum currency is also pegged to the rupee.

Political science lecturer Karma Tenzin, 27, said he wanted a new government that would promote more long-term self-sufficiency.

"Dependency on foreign aid is not sustainable," he said.

The economy grew by 7.5 percent in the fiscal year to June 2012, down from 10 percent a year earlier, but is expected to rise to 8.6 percent this year fuelled by hydropower and high-end tourism, according to the Asian Development Bank.

The country is better known for measuring "Gross National Happiness", a unique yardstick that prioritises citizens' well-being and environment-friendly policies.

In April, Bhutan voted for 20 elected seats in the National Council, the upper house of parliament whose members have no party affiliation and monitor the government's actions, review legislation and advise the king.

Turnout was just 45 percent, down from 53 percent in the last election, but greater interest is expected in the vote on Friday, which has been declared a public holiday.

Party leaders kicked off the election season in early May with a televised debate. Bhutan was the last country in the world to introduce TV in 1999 and it remains fiercely protective of its national identity and culture.

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