Bhutan: 'Last Shangri-La' nears election crossroads

By Vikas Pandey
BBC Monitoring, Thimphu

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe outcome of the vote is expected to be much closer than in 2008

It is twilight outside a pub in the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu.

As the rest of the country settles under the covers, youngsters engage in lively political discussions about key issues ahead of Saturday's general elections.

This once reclusive Himalayan kingdom is now a functioning democracy - complete with its own unique "knockout" voting system. Two out of four competing parties were eliminated in an earlier vote in May, with the remaining two parties participating in the second and decisive stage of the vote on 13 July.

The winner of Saturday's vote will form the government and the runner-up will become the opposition.

"While the first elections were all about celebrating democracy, the vote of 2013 is about discussing people's expectations from politicians," radio disc jockey Kinley Wangchuk says while sipping a chilled pint of beer.

Sandwiched between Asian giants India and China, the Buddhist nation of just over 700,000 people has tried hard to protect itself from the influence of the outside world, only permitting television and the internet just over a decade ago.

For years people from outside the country perceived Bhutan mostly to consist of scenic landscapes, folk music and Buddhist monasteries, earning it the nickname "the last shangri-la".

While today's Bhutan still holds much of this aura, change is in the air.

"The last generation was happy with the approach of selective exposure to the world and even took pride in it," Mr Wangchuk explains, waving to some friends to join the table.

"But today, people want greater exchanges with the world. I hope the incoming government will listen to us."

Before we could take our conversation on to the question of democracy and politics, a band called the Daydream Farmers appears on stage and the introductory notes of a Red Hot Chilli Peppers cover provoke a roar of approval from the crowd.

Band member Sonam Tshering seems to encapsulate the views of many of the younger urban generation.

"People are more aware of different kinds of music - including Western music - today. That is largely thanks to the internet and TV, and I hope the next government will attract more foreign broadcasters."

He shared his band's hope that more venues similar to the pub would host performances by local artists who do not just play folk music.

Outside, groups of youngsters kitted out in the latest fashion stream in and out of other restaurants and pubs. Talk of new tracks and a bit of gossip effortlessly moves on to lively political debates, another sign that democracy really has arrived in Bhutan.

Politics, media, economy

In 2008 there were just two political parties in the elections, but this year four competed in May's qualifying round.

image captionBhutan's election commission has urged people to take part in polls

The ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP) won the qualifying elections and one of them will go on to form the government.

Pema Wangchuk, a government official, sees this as a positive sign and feels diverse political views are important for the country.

Diversification has been the way forward for the country's media, too, ever since King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated in favour of his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in 2006 and announced that Bhutan would become a democracy.

Kunga Tenzin Dorji, former editor of the Drukpa magazine, believes the media has become more vibrant as the dominance of government-run papers in 2008 is slowly giving way to many privately-owned publications in 2013.

Mr Dorji told me that it is the private newspapers that have been at the forefront of highlighting problems in the far-flung areas of the country where people's priorities can be very different from those who live in the towns.

But he feels more can be done. Broadcast news on TV and radio is still state-owned, and newspapers depend too heavily on government advertisements for revenue.

Mr Dorji expects the next government to create a robust economy by encouraging private investment and supporting small-scale industries.

"Newspapers will get more advertisement revenue from the private sector when the economy starts growing and this will help the media to become more independent and fearless," he added.

image copyrightAFP
image captionWestern music has become increasingly popular in Bhutan

For decades, Bhutan has been piggybacking on India for much of its trade and foreign policy, receiving most of its foreign currency reserves by selling hydropower to its big neighbour.

But Mr Dorji is of the view that the incoming government needs to look beyond for business.

"We must maintain our excellent ties with India, but should also look for new frontiers to boost our economy."

India's recent massive reduction of oil and gas subsidies for Bhutan has sparked speculation that this may be because of the Himalayan country's improving relations with China.

"Whoever wins the election, balancing ties with India and China is going to be the key," Mr Dorji concluded.

Is the monarchy still relevant?

The Bhutanese continue to hold the royal family in high admiration. Pema Wangchuk feels that the king is important as a constitutional head and the guardian of the nation.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionBhutan is finding a balance between modern life and its ancient culture

Cab owner Thinley Dorjee - from a small village in the Paro area - also believes "the king is still important because we are a nascent democracy and having a guardian figure helps people feel confident about the electoral process".

Both urban and rural people seem to have pretty much the same priorities: they all want more jobs, better economic conditions and more exposure to the outside world while simultaneously preserving their own culture. Ties with India and China figured in almost every conversation I had.

On Mr Dorjee's list are more job opportunities and economic development.

"The last government may not have provided all the desired results, but we are a new democracy and will go on to mature from here. I just want the government to create more jobs," he said.

Finally I asked Kunga Tenzin Dorji about the country's famed Gross National Happiness index.

He said the concept is "relevant and here to stay" as happiness still matters a lot to Bhutanese people.

"I just hope the next government is more transparent in the way the indicator is measured," he said.

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