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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 January 2008, 13:01 GMT
Main Bhutan election date is set
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

A polling official helps an elderly woman cast her vote during a mock poll at a polling station in Bangtsho, Bhutan, 21 April 2007
Polling officials earlier showed people how to place their vote
The first election to the lower house of Bhutan's parliament, the national assembly, will be held on 24 March.

The vote completes the country's peaceful transition from absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.

The kingdom's election commission said on Thursday that the polls for the powerful 47-member national assembly will be completed in one day.

Astrologers played a key role in deciding the date, with the election commission consulting them regularly.

Chilling winter

Polls for the less powerful upper house of parliament, the national council, were held on 31 December. Eleven of the 15 members elected to the upper house were aged under 40, the oldest being only 46.

"Since holding a degree is one of the two basic qualifications for contesting an election in Bhutan, you will not find many old people in the fray because formal education in the kingdom is a relatively recent phenomenon," said Bhutan expert Gautam Basu.

Two of those elected were in their 20s, just out of university and excited about their first job as people's representatives.

Just under 150,000 people voted during the 31 December polls. The turnout was 55%, which Prof Basu said good for winter.

"The national council elections were a success. The voting passed off well, and I see no reason why the national assembly polls will be any different," said Prof Basu.

Observers will see "a lot of enthusiasm, but no trouble", Chief Election Commissioner Kunzang Wangdi told the BBC.

'Gross national happiness'

But while candidates for the upper house ran as individuals, those seeking seats in the lower house will have party identities.

Bhutan's King Jigme Kesar Namgyel
King Jigme Khesar took the throne in 2006 after his father abdicated

Two new political parties, formed last year, are in the fray. The Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) - Bhutan Harmony Party - is believed to be the frontrunner but expects a strong challenge from the People's Democratic Party (PDP).

Both the parties have drawn their leaders from the bureaucracy and other professional groups.

The tiny Buddhist kingdom has been preparing for democracy since former monarch Jigme Singye Wangchuck decided to hand power to an elected government, even though many of his citizens said they were quite happy with the monarchy.

The monarchy, now headed by his 27-year-old Oxford graduate son, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, remains popular in Bhutan partly because of its focus on boosting what it calls "gross national happiness".

Many Bhutanese are nervous about possible changes they feel may spoil their country. Others are excited that Bhutan, where televisions only arrived in 1999, is beginning to shed its cocoon and join the modern world.

At a time when the future of democracy is uncertain in several countries in South Asia, Bhutan may be heading in the right direction.

SEE ALSO
Bhutan holds its first elections
31 Dec 07 |  South Asia
Bhutan and India sign new treaty
08 Feb 07 |  South Asia
Bhutan king makes foreign debut
07 Feb 07 |  South Asia
Bhutan announces election details
19 Sep 06 |  South Asia
Timeline: Bhutan
18 Apr 07 |  Country profiles

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