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Bhutan becomes the World’s Youngest Democracy

Bhutan has become the youngest member in the club of parliamentary democracies. The peaceful elections on March 24th marked a key turning point in a smooth process of transition from monarchy to democracy. With the success of this historic process, the Bhutanese people have fulfilled the vision of the “father of democracy” the Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck.

Long Live Bhutan

Outsiders unfamiliar with developments in Bhutan may think the democratization is a sudden step. But Bhutanese history shows that the process started 101 years ago. In 1907 our ancestors elected our First hereditary King. Ever since, the five successive Kings have not only safeguarded and strengthened the sovereignty of Bhutan but also ensured that we enjoyed peace and stability. All our Kings have worked tirelessly and selflessly in promoting the interest of the nation while contributing to the gradual increasing prosperity and the well being of us the Bhutanese.

During the 32 year reign of the Fourth King, he has carefully planned a balance between the development of the country and preserving the environment, tradition and culture. Despite being a landlocked country, in 2006, Bhutan’s per capita income was US$1,321 and has 64 percent of forest cover. In addition Bhutan is one of the last living museums of tradition and culture.

Consequently, we Bhutanese hold our institution of monarchy in high esteem. Two years ago, the Fourth King travelled throughout Bhutan to chair the consultation meetings to discuss the draft constitution. This 34 Article draft constitution has paved the way for the historic March 24th election. However, during the consultation meetings many Bhutanese strongly raised concerns about the proposed introduction of democracy. At that time, most Bhutanese thought the proposal was too premature, and hence pleaded with their benevolent monarch to reconsider his advocacy of this new system.

But now, most Bhutanese are grateful for the “shock and awe” approach adopted by the Fourth King. I suspect the intention of the Fourth King’s dramatic approach was to raise awareness and educate his people about the merits of parliamentary democracy in the 21st century. Two years ago, on December 9th, 2006, the Fourth King (51) stunned the nation when he abdicated in favor of his Oxford educated son. In doing so he broke all royal protocols and created history. In a special cabinet sitting in Tashichhodzong (Fortress) in Thimphu, the Fourth King formally announced: “The time has now come for me to hand over my responsibility to Trongsa Penlop (Crown Prince) Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck.”

Initially all of us were shocked with this dramatic act but soon stood in complete awe. Most of us had realized that our Fourth King had given us a special gift and empowered us to charter our own future.

Soon the people agreed with their monarch’s vision that this new system was essential to safeguard the identity and strengthen the sovereignty of the last Mahayana Buddhist kingdom. Situated in the Himalayas, Bhutan is north of India, which is the world’s largest democracy. Hence, acknowledging the strengths of democracy and the role of Bhutan in the 21st century the Bhutanese accepted the visionary royal initiative for political change.

The Fourth King – a playmaker in his basketball team has always maintained that the fate of Bhutan should not lie in the hands of one person. He has also frequently pointed to us that a King is born and does not become one by merit. He believed that as long as there was a good King the future of Bhutan would be all right. But he always continuously questioned what could happen if there was to be a bad King. In the words of an anti-monarchist foreign visitor whose five minute royal audience turned to be few hours discourse returned home with deep reverence for the Fourth King; He said, “The Fourth King himself never liked nor believed in monarchy.” This conviction has been directly translated into the birth of parliamentary democracy in Bhutan.

The initial resistance of the Bhutanese people to change soon wore down. Our faith in the vision of our monarch and widespread respect for his continual selfless acts even to give up power made us realize and accept his vision for this tiny kingdom. In addition, keeping with Buddhist philosophies that propagates impermanence and encourages change, we became more agreeable to change. So left with no option the people slowly accepted the concept of parliamentary democracy and participated with enthusiasm in this transition.

Eventually, the enthusiasm for democracy grew exponentially and spread like wild fire. In 2007 seven out of the ten ministers along with many capable officers resigned from the Government to rise to the call of the nation and contest as candidates in the historic elections. Among them two of the ministers became the leaders of the two political parties (People’s Democratic Party and Druk Phuensum Tshogpa) that emerged in the lead-up to the elections.

Prior to the March 24th election, the primary elections stipulated in Article 15 of Bhutan’s draft constitution had to be foregone because only these two political parties emerged to contest the election.

The Fourth King took personal interest in the drafting of the constitution of Bhutan. Over the few years he had studied the constitution of over 200 countries and discussed it with as many people as he could. The draft constitution has been debated and discussed with all the Bhutanese before the 34 Articles were embraced.

Three years ago, in 2005, in the Fourth King’s last formal public address to the nation on the occasion of the 98th National Day, he said that the introduction of parliamentary democracy was not early if not late and not done in haste. It was after a gradual 26 year process of decentralization and devolution of power to the people that parliamentary democracy was being adopted.

In his last national day address our Fourth King reminded and assured us that democracy was not being introduced in haste. In his address our Fourth King said, “As our people know, Dzongkhag Yargay Tshogdus (state assemblies) were established in 1981 when we first started the policy of decentralization.” Ten years, later in 1991 the geog (district block) assembly was introduced. In addition, administrators at the state level were empowered with administrative and financial powers. Our Fourth King told us his plans, “During the next two years, 2006 and 2007, the Election Commission will educate our people in the process of parliamentary democracy.”

The Kings of Bhutan were always careful to modernize but not westernize. They have been mindful to view the world through eastern spiritual eyes with respect to nature and human life. Yet embrace modern western concepts like openness, optimism and use of science. In modernizing Bhutan, they have also carefully avoided the pitfalls of westernization like individualism and materialism. In our region where democracy has failed more than it has succeeded, we hope Bhutan will help in increasing the people’s conviction in the system of democracy.

The result of this long democratization process has been a successful one. Despite the initial skepticism to the Fourth Kings advocacy of democracy; Bhutan has emerged from its first elections as united and strong as it was under the rule of our benevolent monarchs. This historic change into a full fledged parliamentary democracy was witnessed by international observers. The EU observation mission was amongst the 107 international media personnel’s representing 63 agencies that covered the 865 polling stations.

As the youngest member of the club of parliamentary democracies; the first order of the business of the newly elected parliament would be to adopt the draft constitution. The 28 year old Oxford educated dynamic King; His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck will formally become the first Democratic Constitutional Monarch with the primary responsibility of upholding the constitution and be the symbol of unity of Bhutan.


Contributed by Tshering Tashi ( Tshering Tashi is the Director of Australia – Bhutan Friendship Association.


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#1 2008 Election - 2008 Election » Bhutan becomes the World’s Youngest Democracy on 03.31.08 at 10:23 pm

[…] becomes the World’s Youngest Democracy Bill Nienhuis wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptThis 34 Article draft constitution […]