Small country holds big election

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FILE PHOTO: Bhutanese voters stand in a queue outside a polling station to cast their ballot in Thimpu March 24, 2008. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan/File Photo

The Himalayan nation of Bhutan yesterday held general elections, where its enduring commitment to prioritizing “Gross National Happiness” over economic growth was being questioned due to serious economic challenges. Both political parties participating in the election adhere to a constitutionally mandated philosophy that assesses the government’s success based on the “happiness and well-being of the people.”

Anticipated is the dedication of some voters who embarked on days-long journeys to cast their votes in this landlocked and sparsely populated country, comparable in size to Switzerland.

The forefront of many voters’ concerns was the plight of Bhutan’s younger generation, grappling with persistent unemployment and a significant outflow of talent through migration abroad. Bhutan is grappling with a youth unemployment rate of 29%, as reported by the World Bank, and an average economic growth rate of 1.7% over the past five years. Since the last elections, a significant number of young citizens have left the country in search of improved financial and educational prospects, with Australia emerging as the preferred destination. According to a local news report, around 15,000 Bhutanese individuals were granted visas to Australia in the 12 months leading up to last July, accounting for almost 2% of the kingdom’s population.

The mass exodus dilemma was a focal point for both political parties. Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP), expressed concern that the nation is losing its “cream” with this trend, warning of potential scenarios with empty villages and a deserted nation if it persists. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) raised alarms about Bhutan’s “unprecedented economic challenges and mass exodus.” The party’s manifesto cited government statistics indicating that one in every eight people is “struggling to meet their basic needs for food” and other essentials.

Tourism, though a minor contributor to Bhutan’s economy, plays a crucial role in earning foreign currency, yet it has struggled to rebound from the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In response, the government reduced the substantial daily fee paid by foreign visitors last year to ensure the industry’s sustainability and prevent ecological harm.

Both political parties have committed to significant investments in hydropower, which serves as the primary source of energy for Bhutan. BTP’s manifesto highlighted that the installed hydro capacity is merely 10% of its potential. Meanwhile, the PDP pledged to foster the development of support industries like steel and cement, aiming to create much-needed employment opportunities.

Bhutan held its inaugural elections in 2008 following political reforms that established a bicameral parliament soon after the start of the present king’s reign, which continues to enjoy immense popularity. Election campaigns in this predominantly Buddhist nation have consistently been low-key affairs, governed by strict regulations stipulating that election materials can solely be displayed on public notice boards. A preliminary contest held in November narrowed down the competition to two parties, eliminating both the incumbent government’s party and their former opposition.

Exit polls show that PDP won the most seats in Bhutan’s parliamentary elections and will form the new government. The polls showed that the PDP had won 30 of the 47 National Assembly seats to return to power, and the BTP had secured 17.

With a population of around 800,000, Bhutan is situated between the two most populous nations, China and India. Both neighbouring countries are closely observing the election, particularly as they assess strategic border zones in contention.

A “cooperation agreement” between Bhutan and China was signed in October, following talks over their disputed northern frontier that raised concerns in India. New Delhi has viewed Bhutan as a buffer state firmly within its sphere of influence, effectively steering the country’s foreign policy until 2007.

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