Change is a word often used at election time, but in Bhutan you can sense it at every political meeting and on every door-knocking drive. In the run-up to the country's first-ever general election on March 24, voters and politicians had to figure out how democracy works and, more important, how to import the concept without hurting their traditions. A few weeks ago, in Khuruthang, a town in the verdant Punakha Valley, workers from the People's Democratic Party--the older (at just over a year) of Bhutan's two main parties--pitched a tent in the courtyard of the town's temple. Buddhism is central to life in this tiny Himalayan kingdom, and temple grounds are regularly used for town meetings. Just then, a local election official called with news: no political party could hold a meeting near a temple, since the brand-new draft constitution separates church and state, much as the U.S.'s does. The party organizer argued that the choice of venue had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the temple's nice lawn and handy power outlets. But a rule's a rule, so campaign workers tore down the tent and moved the meeting to a dusty, half-built hotel nearby. "It's all new to us," says volunteer party worker Yeshey Tenzing with a smile. "But we're learning."
They have to. In 2005, Bhutan's fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, announced that he would abdicate in favor of his son and that the country, after nearly a century of mostly benign royal rule, would become a constitutional monarchy with a popularly elected parliament. Most Bhutanese were horrified, fearing that democracy could lead to instability, as it had in neighbors such as Nepal and Bangladesh. But the King insisted, explaining that no nation should be in the hands of one person and that change should happen while the country was still peaceful and prosperity was growing.
Still, the Bhutanese remain uncomfortable with the changes under way and especially with one basic political act: mudslinging. Bhutan is a fiercely traditional place, polite and formal. Slow vehicles pull over to let faster cars go by. Etiquette dictates that you wear formal clothes in the presence of the national flag. The vast majority of the nation's 700,000 people subscribe to ex-King Jigme Singye's emphasis on something he calls gross national happiness, which measures not just wealth but how content, healthy and well educated people are, as well as the state of the environment and strength of the culture.
The two parties that competed in the election have nearly identical platforms, but accusations (mild by Western standards) of influence-peddling and smear tactics have begun to enter the discourse, and people are worrying that Bhutan's close-knit society will suffer. Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye, Bhutan's Chief Justice and the main architect of the draft constitution, understands that there should be political debate but laments that differences are splitting villages and even families. "I don't think we should be enslaved to the nature of politics," he says.
The political change--the election was swept by the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT, or Virtuous Bhutan Party), which is seen as the more royalist of the two--comes as Bhutan grapples with its shifting place in the world. Squeezed between giants China and India, it has slowly opened up over the past few decades. There still may not be a single stoplight in the capital, Thimphu, but there are Internet cafés. Bhutan's royal leaders are prodding their tiny nation into the rushing stream of globalization. "The concerns of the nation are the same--everyone is aware of them," says Dorji Namgay, an engineer, during a visit to his home by Lyonpo Ugyen Tshering, then a candidate for the DPT. "And while our parents may not like to see ugly arguments, we younger people understand that there needs to be some of that. But we should argue the policies, not personalize things, or it becomes somewhat childish." Ugyen sat, hands in lap, ankles together, nodding, and said, "I think politeness is something we hope to keep alive."
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