Bhutan held the first of two rounds of parliamentary elections, the first nationwide elections in its history. Voters chose fifteen members of the National Council, Bhutan’s upper house of parliament. Many Bhutanese walked great distances to cast their votes. Kuenzeng Choden, a twenty-year-old teacher trainee, said, “democracy will be good for the younger generation, with a lot of development taking place.”
A second round of voting is scheduled for January 29th. Elections to the lower house are expected to take place in February and March. Observers from India, Australia, and the U.S. assisted with the elections.
Bhutan has been a hereditary monarchy since 1907. In 2005, the government released a draft constitution that establishes a constitutional monarchy with the limited right to change the government, separation of powers, and protection of human rights.
The government promised to enact the constitution in 2008. It has already begun to permit the establishment of democratic institutions such as political parties. According to the U.S. State Department, during 2007 the Bhutan parliament passed legislation that helped lay the foundation for a transition to democracy. These include measures to combat corruption and make government officials accountable, as well as provisions for freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
Two independent newspapers and a private FM radio station, Kuzoo FM 90, were established. The U.S. State Department said that human rights problems in Bhutan include restrictions on political expression, curbs on freedom of religion, and discrimination against the ethnic Nepali minority.
Bhutan’s transition to democracy will take time and effort. In a written statement, U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey congratulated the government and the people of Bhutan “on undertaking this historic step toward democratic governance.” The U.S., he said, “hopes for a smooth elections process in the coming months.”