01/02/2008, 00.00
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First elections in Bhutan

The Upper House has been elected; in February or March the Lower house will be voted in. Once Parliament is installed, the King will have a purely formal role. Democracy was desired by the king after a century of monarchical rule. Television arrived in 1999 to the country which aims to preserve the national culture to promote Tourism.

Thimphu (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Circa 300 thousand Bhutanese went to the polls yesterday to elect a National Council, the first stage of a process of democratisation after nearly a century of absolute monarchy. It is a fundamental step towards democracy, desired by the former king Jigme Singhye Wangchuck, who abdicated in favour of his Oxford educated son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, 27, ahead of elections in December 2006.

15 of 20 elective seats are up for grabs in the National Council, the upper house of parliament.   A further 5 members will be elected at the end of January (postponed because of a lack of candidates), while 5 others will be nominated by the King.  Elections for the Lower House will be held next February and March.  Despite the fact that in 2007 two simulated elections were held to try to help the population understand how universal suffrage works, for many it was a completely new experience, at the end of an electoral campaign held without any demonstrations or propaganda.  Instead, citizens were invited to go to their local councils, where they could receive a photograph and curriculum of the candidates.  International observers from India, the United States, Australia and the United Nations were monitoring the polls to ensure a smooth process. Bhutan also shut its borders with India and put its small army on alert to make sure there were no disruptions, from Indian separatists or Nepalese rebels.

Under the plan, which comes into effect after these elections, the king will remain head of state, but Parliament will have the power to impeach him by a two-thirds vote. The new parliament will have to preserve the tiny, secluded Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, sandwiched between India and China, where it is forbidden to smoke; international media was only allowed enter in 1974 and where television arrived in 1999. Foreign tourist access is also restricted: no more than 6 thousand a year.  All to protect national culture.

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