Heavy polling as Bhutan becomes world’s newest democracy

March 24th, 2008 - 3:05 pm ICT by admin  

(Lead, Changing dateline)
Syed Zarir Hussain
Thimphu, March 24 (IANS) Brisk voting was underway Monday for the first ever parliamentary elections in Bhutan, marking the end of a 100-year-old monarchy in the Himalayan kingdom. “The enthusiasm is tremendous with heavy polling recorded so far till midday in all the 20 districts. This is a historic moment for all of us,” said Bhutan’s Chief Election Commissioner Dasho Kunzang Wangdi.

Elections are being held for the 47-member National Assembly or the lower house in parliament with 318,465 registered voters eligible to exercise their franchise in the largely Buddhist nation of about 600,000 people.

Bhutan’s first elected prime minister will be from among the National Assembly members.

A national holiday has been declared for the vote in this Shangri-la of jaw-dropping beauty. Voting began at 8 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. Counting of votes will begin soon after polling ends.

“I am feeling really excited after casting my vote,” said Sangay Dorjee, a young businessman.

Men in colourful ‘ghos’, full-sleeved robes tied at the waist, and women dressed in ‘kiras’, sarong-like wraps, lined up at polling stations in Gelephu in southern Sarpang district, the constituency with the highest number of voters at 11,803.

Gelephu borders India’s northeastern state of Assam.

“I have literally created history as I was among those who cast our votes in the first few minutes after voting opened,” Tenzin Wangdi, a college student, told IANS.

Monks clad in maroon-robes and with tonsured heads offered prayers at a local monastery by lighting butter lamps as Bhutan marched towards democracy.

“We really don’t know what is there in store for our country. We hope everything goes fine under the new system,” an elderly monk who identified himself as Tshering said.

Members of the royal family and those directly associated with religious institutions are not allowed to vote.

The polls are being monitored by 42 observers from India, the European Union, Japan, Canada, the US, Denmark, Australia, the Netherlands and officials of the UN Development Programme.

“Some 5,184 polling officials (are) engaged to conduct the elections,” the Chief Election Commissioner said.

The elections are the culmination of a plan by former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck - who handed his crown to his young Oxford-educated son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in December 2006 - to change with the times and relinquish absolute rule.

Jigme Khesar has since assumed charge as Bhutan’s new king.

The former king had started the process in 2001 for Bhutan’s transformation from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary democracy that led to the country having a new constitution.

The king will become head of state after the National Assembly polls next year, but parliament will have the power to impeach him by a two-thirds vote.

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