King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan’s fourth king, began the process of democratizing Bhutan when he gave up some of his absolute powers in 1998. In March 2005, he unveiled the government's new draft constitution, which introduced major democratic reforms. In December 2006 he abdicated the throne to his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, in order to give him experience as head of state before the democratic transition. The country’s first political parties were allowed to form in 2007. The constitution was put into effect in 2008. The first general election was held in 2008. Only two parties took part, and the royalty-linked Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (DPT) won. In second election, in 2013, opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP) won.

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “Never before, say Bhutanese officials, has a beloved monarch voluntarily abdicated his throne to give power to the people. But in 2006 King Jigme Singye Wangchuck did just that, setting up an unusual convergence of events in 2008: a coronation (the fourth king ceremoniously hands over the raven crown to his 28-year-old son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who will serve as a constitutional monarch); a centennial celebration (the monarchy’s hundredth birthday was in 2007, but a royal astrologer deemed this year more auspicious); and, most important, the formation by this summer of the country’s first democratic government. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2008]

Bhutan’s new civilian leaders will face a raft of challenges, not least of which is a public that remains enamored of its kings and skeptical of democracy. The outside world peers in, wondering if this once forgotten Himalayan nation might help answer some of humankind’s most vexing questions: How can a society maintain its identity in the face of the flattening forces of globalization? How can it embrace the good of the modern world without falling prey to the bad? And can there ever be a happy balance between tradition and development?

“The strongest voice for reforming the monarchy, ironically, has been the king’s. What would happen, he has argued, if Bhutan fell into the hands of an evil or incompetent ruler? He won the argument — as kings often do — but his stepchild, democracy, has had a few wobbly first steps. Even fielding viable candidates has been a challenge, owing in part to the king’s insistence that all aspirants to national office be university graduates — this in a country where less than 2 percent of the people have bachelor’s degrees. Nevertheless, last summer two top government ministers — Jigme Y. Thinley and Sangay Ngedup — resigned their posts to lead opposing parties into the elections.

Bhutan’s Constitutional Monarch

Since the introduction of democracy in Bhutan in 2008, the king role in government has become largely symbolic and ceremonial, with occasional advice giving to the government on constitutional matters but generally staying clear of the daily governance activity. Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley described King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck as "the ultimate anchor" of Bhutan and opposition leader Tshering Tobgay said that his presence has "ensured the continuity of the monarchy" and "strengthened" the country's democracy. According to the BBC: Most people in the kingdom remain staunch royalists. Some openly wept when they heard news of his father's plans to curb the powers of the monarchy. Emotions ran similarly high when King Jigme Khesar married a commoner in October 2011. [Source: Alastair Lawson, BBC News, October 13, 2011]

Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post: “The king’s youthfulness and worldly experience have also made him a bridge between Bhutan’s tightly guarded ancient traditions and the country’s rapidly expanding younger generation. He has become a symbol of unity and stability in a country grappling with momentous changes. The fourth king’s in-laws were not popular, widely accused of abusing their powers to enrich themselves with monopolistic controls of the sandstone and timber industries. The fifth king’s first move as monarch, an immensely popular one, was to end those monopolies through nationalization. The fact that his new bride’s parents are not business people likely stood in her favor. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, October 13, 2011]

“ Although his father enjoyed absolute powers, the fifth Druk Gyalpo, or “Dragon King,” is a constitutional monarch. He assiduously avoids meddling in politics, but his influence remains substantial in a country that has long looked to the monarchy for guidance. Wangchuck has spent most of his short reign touring his mountainous country and listening to his people — his stated aim is to meet all of his subjects — and he retains the powerful tool of “kidu,” roughly translated as “his majesty’s welfare.” Under kidu, the granting of government land to the landless and poor remains a royal prerogative, and it is a role the king has embraced on his travels. Kidu also allows subjects to approach the king with grievances, and villagers frequently wait by the roadside when they know he is passing.

“With a team of secretaries from the royal chamberlain’s office taking meticulous notes for possible follow-up, getting the king’s ear remains a valuable asset for the citizens of today’s Bhutan. “This is not a photocopy of the Western form of democracy; neither is it a celebration of the past,” said the king’s press secretary, Dorji Wangchuck. “But it is a genuine attempt to see how Western democratic practices can be merged with traditional forms of governance, where the king and the government are seen to be more caring and at the service of the people.”

Moves Towards Democracy in Bhutan

During the 1960s, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk (reigned.1952-72), Bhutan’s third king, was a prime mover behind political and administrative changes that started Bhutan on the long road to constitutional monarchy. When Crown Prince Jigme Singye Wangchuk assumed the throne upon his father's death in July 1972 and was crowned in June 1974, he continued his father's policy of sharing authority with the Council of Ministers and the National Assembly. In 1998, as king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk announced ambitious political changes that moved Bhutan further down the road towards a true constitutional monarchy.

Arthur Lubow wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: Jigme Singye Wangchuk “has explained his push to democratize Bhutan as a safeguard against the risk that some future monarch might be incompetent or worse. But his desire to maintain the nation's sovereignty likely influenced his decision. Recent decades have proved disastrous for other Himalayan Buddhist states. Tibet was taken over by China in 1950, self-governing Ladakh was divided between India and Pakistan in 1949 (with China grabbing a portion from India in 1962), and, in 1975, India annexed the kingdom of Sikkim, following a steady influx of Hindu immigrants from Nepal that left Buddhists in a minority. The hope is that a democratic Bhutan would more readily elicit world support if its sovereignty were challenged. "Democracy may not be the best form of government," Penden Wangchuk told me, "but it is the one accepted by the world." [Source: Arthur Lubow, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2008]

“But Bhutan's path to democracy has been bumpy. In the 1980s, perhaps motivated by a desire to avoid Sikkim's fate, the government redefined citizenship to exclude those who could not claim Bhutanese parentage on both sides. Southern Bhutanese, most of whom are Nepali-speaking Hindus, were also required to produce a tax receipt from 1958 (the year a nationality law first defined what it meant to be a Bhutanese citizen). The government said it was attempting to control illegal immigration; southern Bhutanese protested that legitimate citizens were also being forced to leave. For two years, beginning in late 1990, refugees poured out of southern Bhutan and into Nepal, where camps were set up to house them. Today there are some 107,000 people in those camps, although how many are originally from Bhutan remains a topic of impassioned dispute. The U.S. government has offered to accept as many refugees as would like to come to the United States. In the meantime, Maoist groups operating from Nepal have threatened to disrupt the elections. On January 20, four bombs went off in Bhutan; the police said they suspected that Nepal-based Maoists were responsible.

Henry Chu wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Some speculate that the example of another Himalayan kingdom may have triggered the push for democratic reform. In April 2006, a violent popular revolt forced the king of Nepal to end absolute rule; that country now stands on the verge of abolishing the monarchy altogether. In Bhutan, the royal palace has, in effect, opted for peaceful evolution now rather than possible revolution later.” [Source: Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2008]

Democratic Reforms Under King Jigme Singye Wangchuck

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck (reigned 1972-2006) launched a number democratic reforms. In 1998, the position of Prime Minister was created. In 2005 the King announced the time had come for a democratic government. He unveiled the draft of Bhutan's first constitution, which introduced major democratic reforms.He researched the constitutions of more than 50 nations, seeking comments from the public and consulted with the 20 Dzongkhags (Bhutan’s administrative and judicial districts). Two years after the King’s reign ended and in accordance to his wishes, the Constitution was enacted in 2008 and elections were held in the same year, giving birth to a new system of governance. [Source:]

In the late 1990s democratic reforms were initiated. They included slowly transitioning day-to-day governance to a selected council, and giving the legislature the right to dethrone the king with a no confidence vote and allowing periodic test of the king’s rule with period ic votes of confidence. Jigme Singye Wangchuk continued his father's policy of sharing authority with the Council of Ministers and the National Assembly. In 1998, the king announced plans that would move Bhutan to a true constitutional monarchy. He gave up his his role as head of government and assigned full executive powers to a cabinet consisting of ministers and advisors to be elected by the National Assembly. The draft for a first constitution for Bhutan was debated in the country's 20 districts before being officially presented in March 2005. As part of his reforms, the king introduced legislation in a monarch would have to abdicate in favor of his hereditary successor if the National Assembly supported a vote of no-confidence against him by a two-thirds majority.

Even with all this there were a lot of shortcomings with Bhutanese democracy at this stage. The National Assembly was made of representative chosen mainly by the monarchy, military and religious elite. The king controlled the military and had sole authority over security issues. The Council of Ministers — a subgroup of the cabinet approved by the king — elected one of its members on a rotational basis to serve a one year term as chairman, the head of government.

Democracy Under King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck

Arthur Lubow wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who took the throne in 2006, has not deviated from his father's policies, including the former king's approach to the refugee problem. He also apparently endorses his father's environmentalism. Not only is logging strictly supervised, but the constitution, requires Bhutan to maintain 60 percent of its land as forest. Yet some citizens worry that the newly empowered electorate's demand for basic services could threaten the nation's remarkable range of native plants and animals. [Source: Arthur Lubow, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2008]

Alistair Scrutton of Reuters wrote: “Bhutan’s fifth king provides the checks and balances on an unsure democracy where political parties did not exist” until 2007. “A successful monarchy may be key to bringing stability to a kingdom that sits amid a region racked by civil conflict and war. Neighboring Nepal’s monarch was recently abolished, while India absorbed the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim and China, Tibet. “I will follow in my father’s footstep,” the king said when asked which direction the monarchy would now take. “My father set the bar very high. Was a wonderful leader. We will try to live up to expectations.” [Source: Alistair Scrutton, Reuters, October 13, 2011]

After his coronation, the King’s first landmark project was the National Cadastral Resurvey in March 2009, which focused on improving the lives of people living in remote parts of Bhutan. In 2011, he launched the Kidu Foundation. Kidu or the wellbeing of the people is by tradition, a Royal Prerogative, included in the Bhutan Constitution and is the fundamental responsibility of the King. The role of the Kidu Foundation is to work with government efforts to address critical issues in areas of education, the rule of law, democracy and media, sustainable economic development, and preservation of the country’s environmental and cultural heritage. [Source:]

Doubts About Democracy in Bhutan

Simon Denyer of Reuters wrote: Bhutan’s fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, not only surrendered power without a struggle, he actually imposed democracy against the will of many of his subjects, before abdicating. “At first people were pleading with the king not to do this,” said Kinley Dorji, managing director of the state-owned newspaper Kuensel. “People were looking around at what is happening in South Asia and saying ‘no thank you’.” “But His Majesty said you can’t leave such a small, vulnerable country in the hands of only one man, who was chosen by birth and not by merit.” [Source: Simon Denyer, Reuters, March 21, 2008]

Arthur Lubow wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “None of the Bhutanese citizens I met seemed particularly enthusiastic about their impending conversion to democracy, an observation with which Dasho Kunzang Wangdi, the country's chief election commissioner, agreed. "People are perfectly comfortable with the way things are," he told me. Both of the political parties vying for control of the National Assembly this month share an allegiance to the royal vision. "We are not starting a party because we have a better vision; we are starting a party because the king has ordered it," said Tshering Tobgay, a founder of the People's Democratic Party. "Do we have an ideology other than we want to continue what the king is doing?" He smiled, amused, perhaps, by the notion that a politician might criticize the king. At least in the short term, a democratic Bhutan may not look so different from the Bhutan of today. [Source: Arthur Lubow, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2008]

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “Reverence for royalty runs deep in Bhutan, and few feel it more keenly than a woman named Peldon. She has lived her 41 years in the shadow of the royal family’s ancestral home, Dungkhar, a simple timbered house set in a remote northeastern valley encircled by snow-capped peaks. Peldon, who displays eight poster-size photographs of the kings in her home, has seen the monarchy’s benefits firsthand. Three years ago a road through the mountains materialized, cutting the trip to the nearest town from two days to two hours. Electricity arrived too, enabling Peldon to attend evening literacy classes and to weave kiras late into the night. “Night has turned into day,” she says, “and we owe it all to His Majesty the King.”

“Peldon finds it hard to accept” democracy. “Like many Bhutanese, she wept that day in December 2006 when, after 34 years on the throne, Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated in favor of his son, opening the way for parliamentary elections. Peldon reveres the fourth king as a visionary who has led by example, investing in schools and roads rather than palaces and personal bank accounts. His son and successor, Oxford-educated Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, arrived in Dungkhar last year to encourage villagers to vote. Peldon admires the young monarch, but the point of the elections eludes her. “We have a good and wise king,” she says. “Why do we need democracy?” [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2008]

“Rural peasants aren’t the only ones harboring doubts. At a trendy Thimphu nightclub called P. Wang, a trio of power brokers relaxes after a round of golf, singing karaoke and toasting the monarchy. “I don’t want democracy, because it can lead to chaos, like in Nepal or India,” says Tshering Tobgay, a businessman. “But whatever the king says, we must eat — whether sweet or sour, poisonous or delicious.” Even Bhutan’s chief election commissioner concedes that he would prefer not to have elections. “Given the choice, of course, we’d want to continue to be guided by the monarchy,” Dasho Kunzang Wangdi says. So why change? “It’s a simple thing: The king wants it.”

Constitution of Bhutan

Bhutan’s first constitution was drafted between November 2001 and March 2005, ratified on July 18, 2008. Before that governing documents were various royal decrees; Amendments are : proposed as a motion by simple majority vote in a joint session of Parliament; passage requires at least a three-fourths majority vote in a joint session of the next Parliament and assent by the king [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck (reigned 1972-2006) unveiled the draft of Bhutan's first constitution, which introduced major democratic reforms. He researched the constitutions of more than 50 nations, seeking comments from the public and consulted with the 20 Dzongkhags (Bhutan’s administrative and judicial districts). Two years after the King’s reign ended and in accordance to his wishes, the Constitution was enacted in 2008 and elections were held in the same year, giving birth to a new system of governance. The draft for a first constitution for Bhutan was debated in the country's 20 districts before being officially presented in March 2005. As part of his reforms, the king introduced legislation in a monarch would have to abdicate in favor of his hereditary successor if the National Assembly supported a vote of no-confidence against him by a two-thirds majority. [Source:]

At the time the constitution was enacted, Reuters reported: Bhutan’s parliament endorsed the country’s first constitution formally turning the former absolute monarchy into a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy. The 27-year-old king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, signed the first copy of the constitution, using a wooden pen dipped in golden ink inside a 17th century fortress after parliament had ratified it. His father, Bhutan’s fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, not only surrendered power without a struggle, but actually imposed democracy against the will of many of his subjects. The king’s father, ministers and lawmakers looked on as he endorsed the new document. Colourfully dressed monks chanted prayers in a ceremony shown live on national television. “On this day of destiny, in the blessed land of Pelden Drukpa (glorious Bhutan) we, a fortunate people and king, hereby resolve to bring into effect the root and foundation — the very source — of all law in our nation,” the fifth king said. “This is the people’s constitution.” [Source: Reuters, July 18, 2008]

Mock Elections in Bhutan

To prepare Bhutanese citizens for their first real election in March 2008, a mock poll was staged in April 2007 . Sanjoy Majumder of the BBC wrote: “The idea was to familiarise the people of this isolated nation with the concept of parliamentary democracy before the 2008 national election. For the nearly 700,000 people who make up the kingdom of Bhutan, the mock poll was a chance to experience what democracy might feel like. [Source: Sanjoy Majumder, BBC, 21 April 2007]

“Voters spread across this landlocked country high up in the Himalayan mountains, trudged to their nearest polling station to choose from one of four mock parties — the Blue, Red, Green or Yellow Thunder Dragon Party, named after the country's national symbol. The two most successful parties will compete in a run-off in May, in which high-school students will act as candidates. Some 10,000 officials are involved in the logistics, with special observers from neighbouring India, which has helped train them.

Emily Wax wrote in the Washington Post: “During a mock training exercise in democracy that included a street protest, unknowing residents of the capital, Thimphu, became so frightened by the loud chanting of slogans that they called the police. “My mother called me frantically asking what was happening," chuckled Ugyen Tshering, a candidate in the capital who served as an ambassador to the United Nations under the monarchy. "We in Bhutan are not familiar with such public displays." [Source: Emily Wax, Washington Post, March 23, 2008]

2008 Elections in Bhutan

In March 2008, Bhutan held its first general parliamentary election in accordance with the constitution and the result shocked the nation. The Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (DPT, for Druk Phuensum Tshogpa) won 45 seats, while the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), run by the king’s relatives by marriage, took only two seats. [Source: Reuters, July 18, 2008]

With the elections for new 47-seat National Assembly, Bhutan completed its transition to full democracy. Only two parties contested the election: The DPT was formed by the merger of the previously established Bhutan People's United Party. The PDP was led by Sangay Ngedup. The DPT won over 67 percent of the vote. Jigmi Thinley's DPT was most closely aligned with monarchy and its views about "Gross National Happiness," — the all-encompassing political philosophy that seeks to balance material progress with spiritual well-being. The new government first order of business was to adopt the new constitution when it met in May 2008, completing the historic transition from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary democracy, albeit with considerable power still concentrated in the hands of Bhutan's king. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Henry Chu wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Few people here seem particularly thrilled about the prospect of governing themselves, preferring to remain subjects under direct rule by the Golden Throne, which has guided the Land of the Thunder Dragon for the last 101 years. But spurred by devotion and duty to the king, they say they will do their best to fulfill his vision of a shiny new Bhutan. “We are reluctant democrats," said Sonam Tobgay Dorji, a candidate for parliament. "It's been forced on us, and we have to embrace it." [Source: Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2008]

Emily Wax wrote in the Washington Post: “Many Bhutanese fear the polluting power of electoral politics, equating democracy with the often turbulent and corrupt versions of government in nearby countries such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal. many Bhutanese say they are going along with the elections only out of loyalty to their much-loved fourth king, who insisted on a democratic transition and tasked his son, the current king, with carrying out that vision. “We worry that the scratching and attacking of campaigns will create a disturbance in our closely knit society, where respect and community vitality have been our strength rather than the importance of the individual," said Sonam Chuki, a political science lecturer at the Royal Institute of Management in Thimphu. "No one ever pushed the king or said it was high time for democracy. But we hope for happiness and a stable outcome." [Source: Emily Wax, Washington Post, March 23, 2008]

Politics in Bhutan at the Time of the 2008 Elections

At the time of the 2008 election, Simon Denyer of Reuters wrote: “Even today national dress is compulsory, knee-length robes with long socks for men, elegant gowns for women. Criticism of the elite was almost unheard of, even a year ago. But democracy is coming, and “it is more real than we realized”, said Kinley Dorji, of newspaper Kuensel. True, there are only two political parties, with almost identical manifestoes based on the present government’s latest five-year plan and what people call “His Majesty’s vision”. Both promote Gross National Happiness (GNH), the king’s idea that traditions and the environment should not be sacrificed in the ruthless pursuit of economic growth. Both say development must be more “equitable” than in the past, but both party leaders are drawn from the elite, one the brother of Wangchuck’s four wives, the other a man closely associated with the idea of GNH. Each party leader has served twice as prime minister under royal rule. [Source: Simon Denyer, Reuters, March 21, 2008]

“Yet debate is arriving in Bhutan. As the two parties accuse each other of some low-level corruption and vote-buying, the press has in the process become freer. “Ours was a society where people needed to be respected, and not really be stripped in public,” said Gopilal Acharya, editor of the Bhutan Times newspaper. “But these are public figures, and people have a right to know what kind of people they are.”

“Yet for now this remains a closely controlled democracy. Chief Election Commissioner Kunzang Wangdi disqualified a third party from running because he felt it lacked sufficient leadership, candidates and resources. “The Election Commission has moral responsibility, we are the gatekeeper,” he said. “We will only let in somebody who we can assure can manage the country, if not better than the king, then at least maintain its present state.”

“There are limits to debate, too, and they are strict. No criticism of the royal family, no raising of ethnic issues in a “divisive” way. In 1990, tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis were forced out of Bhutan for demanding democracy and protesting against discrimination, and more than 100,000 now live in crowded camps inside Nepal. A similar number still live in southern Bhutan, but exiled groups say many of them have been denied identity cards — and thus voting rights — making a “mockery” of the election. Rebel groups have emerged from the refugee camps in the past year and have threatened to disrupt the polls. They detonated three bombs inside Bhutan on Thursday, injuring a policeman, and eight others this year, with one death.

“Yet within Bhutan, there is real hope that democracy will also bring with it gradual change for the Nepali minority. The parties have fielded a combined total of 19 ethnic Nepali candidates in the country’s 47 constituencies. “For either of the parties to survive it has to have support in the three main regions, the east, west and south,” said Tashi Tsering, spokesman for the People’s Democratic Party. “It is an issue that neither party is taking up very strongly at this point in time, but one the new government has to face and address immediately.”

“For the Buddhist majority, democracy is still slightly baffling, but it is a change many people are learning to embrace. “We can speak out now,” said 28-year-old Ugyen Dorji, an administrative assistant in a school in the capital Thimpu. “After democracy they have to come here, and talk to low-level people.”

Campaigning During the 2008 Elections

Henry Chu wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Newspapers have shuddered at the negative campaigning between the two new parties: the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, or DPT, and the People's Democratic Party, or PDP. But even Bhutan's gloves-off politicking seems more akin to a sandbox squabble than the vicious mudslinging common in the West: A typical dispute centers on one party's attempt to use yellow in its logo, which the other side indignantly points out is the king's color. [Source: Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2008]

“In reality, very little separates the two parties. Neither dares deviate from the blueprint for increasing "GNH" — gross national happiness — laid out by the king, based on sustainable development. “Bhutanese politics is still without ideology," said the Harvard-educated Sonam Tobgay Dorji, a candidate for the People's Democratic Party. "So basically, what people are looking at is what candidates can deliver."

“The politicians' promises are of the usual kind in the developing world: more roads, reliable electricity, better sanitation, safe drinking water. But to an electorate afraid of change, both parties also preach stability. The DPT, whose slate of nominees boasts five former ministers in the royal government, promotes itself as the safest hands for an uncertain time, while the PDP projects a younger, more dynamic image, a party able to "walk the talk," as its slogan goes. The leader of the party that wins a majority of the 47 parliamentary seats will be Bhutan's first elected prime minister.

“This may well be one of the most micro-managed elections on Earth, with officials eager to regulate almost every aspect of the process to ensure the smoothest, most harmonious outcome possible. They even held a mock election last year to prepare voters. There are rules on fund-raising limits, the size of posters, where they can be displayed, what goodies can be handed out to voters, how the parties ought to treat each other (only "constructive criticism," please). Candidates must have a college degree, which drastically shrinks the available pool. Monks are ineligible to vote, in order to keep religious institutions and figures above politics.

“The parties are also barred from campaigning on matters of "security" or "citizenship" — code words for Bhutan's most intractable issue, its population of ethnic Nepalese. A crackdown on "illegal immigrants" by the king more than a decade ago resulted in tens of thousands of Nepali speakers fleeing the country. Independent observers are monitoring participation in the election process by ethnic Nepalese who stayed behind.

Campaigning Weariness and Refraining for Negativity During Bhutan’s 2008 Elections

The whole campaign and election process was difficult for some Bhutanese to stomach and digest. In general, Bhutanese society frowns on self-promotion and open criticism. “Why do we need these people and their arguments?" a 48-year-old Kinzang Tshering told Associated Press after listening to one candidate campaign days before the vote. "They tell us they are better than the other ones. How should I know which one is better?" [Source: Associated Press, March 24, 2008]

Emily Wax wrote in the Washington Post: “The campaign has kept Bhutanese sensibilities in mind. There were no exposés of extramarital affairs or allegations of rigging. In debate rules issued by the electoral commission, candidates were told to use "constructive criticism, please." The DPT’s slogan is "Growth with equity and justice,". The PDP’s slogan is "Service with humility. Walk the talk." [Source: Emily Wax, Washington Post, March 23, 2008]

“One candidate accused his opponent's wife of donating a butter lamp, a traditional gift used to burn butter or oil, to a monastery to win the support of monks, who hold powerful sway in villages. Another candidate criticized the opposing party for its yellow campaign logo — yellow is the royal family's color. “We were very happy before this election, because the country was peaceful," said Thugi Dema, 50, as she chewed a clump of betel leaf that turned her teeth bright red. She flashed a button showing the king's face, pinned to her traditional dress. "We don't need this tiresome campaigning. It's not our culture."

“A recent front-page headline in the Bhutan Times read: "Tired, tired, tired!" According to the article, campaigning in some districts had ended early because "people are instead looking forward to getting back to their fields with sickles and spades. Politicians are realizing that their desperate call for people to listen to their promise-laden homilies is not working anymore."

“In an open letter to the nation, the king urged Bhutanese to vote and defended his family's move toward democracy. “This transition is a Bhutanese transition," he wrote in the government newspaper, Kuensel, explaining that the gross national happiness index would make the democracy truly Bhutanese. "We are not compelled — nor would it be wise for a unique nation like ours — to follow blindly what happens elsewhere. This election and the democracy that we will build are the result of the sacrifice and hard work of generations of Bhutanese people. It's another important step toward strengthening our nation."

“What little violence there has been in the run-up to the elections comes from Nepalese rebel groups, which asserted responsibility for three bombings this week. No one was seriously injured. The government forced as many as 100,000 ethnic Nepalese out of the country in the 1990s. Ethnic Nepalese still form a sizable community in Bhutan, and they have put forward 19 candidates in this vote, hoping to gain a louder voice.

Campaigning on Foot in Mountainous Bhutan During the 2008 Elections

Ugyen Tshering, a candidate for the DPT in north Thimphu, told the Los Angeles Times: .“We are blessed to do this peacefully, literally as a gift from the king. Everywhere else it's at the point of a gun." Chu wrote: “For 10 days, Tshering hiked and rode horseback to visit the more remote parts of his constituency, pressing the flesh in three far-flung villages with about 300 voters, out of an overall roll of 4,888. “Every ballot is going to count," he said one afternoon while out canvassing a hillside of whitewashed mud-and-wood homes just a few miles, as the tiger flies, from central Thimphu. Campaigning "wasn't something we were used to. It took a little time to get into the rhythm of it." [Source: Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2008]

“Now, putting aside the characteristic Bhutanese modesty that frowns on self-promotion, he waves down passing cars and motorcycles to introduce himself. He shakes hands. He sips tea in living rooms. At a silversmith's house, he gamely climbs a narrow staircase that is little more than a hollowed-out tree trunk.

“Everyone who receives him is unfailingly polite. Some are bewildered. Few give any inkling as to what they think. There are no opinion polls. “The Bhutanese people are consummate diplomats," said candidate Dorji, who is running in south Thimphu. "They listen to both sides, but none of us can get inside their minds." “Wangdi, the tour operator, has not been impressed with any of those who would be his new leaders. "People can yap and convince and talk," he said, "but when it comes to the realities, we don't know if they can handle it." “He hasn't made up his mind which party to support, but he plans to cast a vote Monday anyway. It's what the king would want.

Voting and Trudging to the Polls for Bhutan’s 2008 Elections

On the day of the election, Emily Wax wrote in the Washington Post: “Without revolution or bloodshed, this tiny Himalayan kingdom became the world's newest democracy, as wildflower farmers, traditional healers, Buddhist folk artists and computer engineers voted in their country's first parliamentary elections, ending a century of absolute monarchy. In a historic event, entire families took to winding mountain roads, traveling in some cases for days in minivans, on horseback and on foot to cast their ballots, marking Bhutan's transition to a constitutional monarchy. Despite concerns that Bhutanese would be turned off by the rough-and-tumble world of politics, more than 79 percent of the estimated 318,000 registered voters turned out at polling places. It was the king, as well as his father and predecessor, who ordered his subjects to vote, in the belief that democracy would foster stability [Source: Emily Wax, Washington Post, March 25, 2008]

“Almost all stores were padlocked for the day because of the election. Signs said "Gone to vote." The cellphone network got bogged down because so many Bhutanese called candidates to wish them good luck. “In central Bhutan, buses loaded with voters traveling to remote mountain villages were stalled because gas stations ran out of fuel. "Suffering for suffrage," a headline in a local newspaper read, showing families camped on roadsides in the cold. In rural areas, colorful tents with the country's dragon emblem were set up beside buckwheat farms. In the chilly, cloud-shrouded hills, people in traditional dress lined up peacefully to vote.

Results of Bhutan’s 2008 Elections

Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (DPT, for Druk Phuensum Tshogpa) won 67 percent of the vote and 45 seats in the 47-seat National Assembly in the March 2008 election, a result that shocked the nation as the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), run by the king’s relatives by marriage, took only two seats and its leader, Sangay Ngedup, lost his own constituency. The DPT was formed by the merger of the previously established Bhutan People's United Party. The DPT was led by Jigmi Thinley

Thinley,a former prime minister who became prime minister after the election. His s party was most closely aligned with monarchy and its views about "Gross National Happiness," — the all-encompassing political philosophy that seeks to balance material progress with spiritual well-being. The new government first order of business was to adopt the new constitution when it met in May 2008, completing the historic transition from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary democracy, albeit with considerable power still concentrated in the hands of Bhutan's king. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Emily Wax wrote in the Washington Post: DPT president, Jigmi Thinley was one of the architects of the gross national happiness development philosophy of grass-roots health, education and environmental programs. On the margin of the DPT’s victory, Palden Tshering, spokesman for the DPT, said “We are in total amazement. I think what happened was that they looked at the two parties and figured out that our party was one that could possibly give us a government that was envisioned by His Majesty." [Source: Emily Wax, Washington Post, March 25, 2008]

Both parties said they would work to bridge the gaps between them. “We will set aside our differences and reconcile, that is what's most important. His Majesty has given us a precious gift," said Sangay Ngedup, president of the PDP, whose four sisters are all married to the fourth king. "The pressure is on us now to nurture democracy. A great legacy of His Majesty the king is on our shoulders. His Majesty the king will always remain an inspiration."

After becoming prime minister, Thinley traveled the world promoting “Gross National Happiness”, which made him a popular figure among Western academics and literati but was not so well received at home. His demand for limousine service and luxury accommodations also did not win him many fans. Thinley lobbied for a nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, opened new embassies and held discussions with China, efforts that alarmed India. [Source: Gardiner Harris, New York Times, October 4, 2013]

Confused Meaning of Bhutan’s First Election in 2008

Somini Sengupta wrote in the New York Times: “Orders from the palace sent the people of Bhutan rushing to the polls for their first national elections. While turnout was heavier than in many countries more experienced with voting — nearly 80 percent by the time polls closed at 5 p.m. — the results left some analysts wondering how democracy would actually function. [Source: Somini Sengupta, New York Times, March 25, 2008

“There were no striking differences between the platforms of the two parties, making the vastly uneven results hard to explain. “We are all caught completely off balance at this moment,” Karma Ura, director of the Center for Bhutan Studies, a government-financed organization, said by telephone from Thimphu, the capital. “Functioning of democracy requires a good opposition. I don’t know what will happen now. It’s not an ideal situation.”

“The Bhutan elections, no matter the results, are likely to have staved off potential antimonarchist rumblings and helped the palace retain its credibility as well as influence. Excluded from the election were thousands of people who fled or were expelled after pro-democracy protests in 1990. Bhutan says most of them were illegal immigrants. Mostly Hindu, they have languished in refugee camps in Nepal, and some among them are expected to be resettled as refugees in the United States.”

Druk Phuensum Tshogpa swept the election. “In pursuit of gross national happiness” is its English-language motto, a notion coined by the elder king to refer to a path of development that combines economic indicators with respect for culture, religion and the environment.But then again, the rival People’s Democratic Party had also pledged to follow the king’s development model, and its leader also served in the royal government. As its manifesto put it, “We the people of Bhutan have been blessed with monarchs who have put the nation’s interest above all.”

2013 Elections in Bhutan: Big Loser in 2008 Wins Big This Time.

Bhutan experienced a peaceful turnover of power following a parliamentary election in 2013, which resulted in the defeat of the incumbent party. The BBC reported: The opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP) won the second-ever parliamentary election in Bhutan. It beat the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) party, which has strong links to the king. The turnout was high at about 80 percent, said officials. The kingdom's struggling economy and ties with neighbouring India were key issues in the campaign. [Source: BBC, July 13, 2013]

“The PDP won 32 of the country's 47 parliamentary seats according to Bhutan's Election Commission. The DPT, which won the last election in 2008, only secured 15 seats. PDP leader Tshering Tobgay was named prime minister.The PDP has criticised the government for a recent deterioration of ties with India, a key ally. 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.

The PDP’s victory left many surprised as it had only managed to win 12 seats in the primaries that were held in May. At that time, the PDP secured just 32.5 percent of the votes, against the DPT’s 44.5 percent. On that election, AFP reported: Voters in Bhutan braved heavy rain and treacherous mountain paths to cast their ballots. Wearing traditional dress and sheltering under umbrellas, Bhutanese queued patiently at polling stations.The center-right Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) party, which has governed Bhutan for its first five years of democracy, beat the three other parties contesting with a 45 percent share of the vote, officials said late Friday. It will now go through to a final round on July 13 against the second-place People's Democratic Party, and the winners of that vote will form the next government. [Source: AFP, May 31, 2013]

“Sherab Zangpo, a spokesman for the Election Commission of Bhutan, said the polling day was "very smooth" with "no complaints", but a turnout of just 55 percent suggested monsoon conditions had discouraged some from voting. While the electorate comprises fewer than 400,000 people, casting votes is a huge logistical challenge across the rugged country, where democracy was introduced in 2008 after Bhutan's "dragon kings" ceded absolute power. In the run up to the poll, officials trekked for up to seven days to reach voters in the most remote corners of the country.

“Armed with satellite phones to send in results, they battled heavy rains and slippery leech-infested trails to ensure that even isolated yak-owning nomads could cast their vote, the national Kuensel newspaper reported. “From our side we did everything we could, but because of the weather there were roadblocks in the east," said Zangpo.

“Conditions were less extreme in Dopshari village, about an hour-and-a-half drive from the capital Thimphu, where men in the national "gho" robe and women the "kira" dress began queueing up before the polls opened, some of them chewing betel nut to pass the time. “There are so many pledges in their (politicians') manifestos but basically what we expect is a government that can bring about happiness to the people, and at the same time economic development," said Chimi Dorji, 35, as he waited. “Because without economic prosperity there can't be happiness," he added.

Bhutan Election Results in 2013: What Does It Mean?

The incumbent DPT party, which won overwhelmingly in 2008, was expected to win again in 2013 or at least do better than it did thanks to its support in rural communities, which make up about 70 percent of the population, or so it was thought. Between 2008 and 2013, there was improved access to roads, electricity and mobile phone networks, and many thought that would be enough to win. But many educated, urban voters were less impressed with the government's work, political analyst Kencho Wangdi told AFP. Their concerns include a string of corruption scandals, a lack of new jobs, a weak private sector and a rupee liquidity crunch. [Source: AFP, May 31, 2013]

Sanjay Kumar wrote in The Diplomat: Among the factors attributed to the defeat of the ruling party are the dynamism of the PDP leader, Tshering Togbay, who holds a master's in public administration from Harvard University, and the party’s decision to challenge the concept of Gross National Happiness as being an empty slogan. This struck a chord with the voters. [Source: Sanjay Kumar, The Diplomat, July 18, 2013]

“Many analysts believe that factors related to India also played a crucial role in swinging the mood of the people in favor of the Opposition. When the election campaign was at its peak, New Delhi withdrew subsidies on kerosene and cooking gas supplied to Bhutan, which led to a steep price hike for those essential products. Analysts believe this flared voters’ anger against the ruling party and impacted the election result. Speaking with The Diplomat, Wasbir Hussain, executive director of the Guwahati-based Center for Development and Peace Studies, said that “India’s decision to withdraw subsidies at the time of the election may not have been deliberate but the timing was significant.”

“However, PDP spokesperson Tashi Dorji argued that “if you look at the primaries you will find that the ruling party’s vote share had come down from 67 percent to 44 percent — an indication of people’s desire for change.” Thimphu-based journalist Jigme Thinley agreed that “people were looking for change”, adding that “the withdrawal of subsidies in the middle of an election campaign and ties with India becoming an electoral issue might have impacted the outcome of the result.”

Tshering Tobgay, Prime Minister of Bhutan, 2013-2018

Tshering Tobgay, the leader of the PDP, became the Prime Minister of Bhutan after the PDP election victory in 2013. Gardiner Harris wrote in the New York Times: In 2009, “while competing in the first Tour of the Dragon, billed as the most difficult one-day mountain bike race in the world, he fell and broke his jaw after riding 42 miles. In searing pain, he got up and rode the rest of the race — 124 more miles....Several factors went his way” in the 2013 election “including a currency crisis and threats from India just before the vote to withdraw vital financial support. But many analysts credit Mr. Tobgay with running an unusually disciplined campaign that included a long manifesto of specific promises. [Source: Gardiner Harris, New York Times, October 4, 2013]

“The son of a soldier, Mr. Tobgay was sent to boarding school near Darjeeling, India, when he was 5. After graduating from high school, he won a government scholarship to attend the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering. In 1991, he became a civil servant in Bhutan’s education department, but left government service in 2007 to dive into politics. He is married and has two children.

Tobgay “has largely abandoned the country’s signature gross national happiness measure. His catalog of modest promises during the election campaign included a motorized rototiller for every village and a utility vehicle for each district. Happiness was not on his list. “Rather than talking about happiness, we want to work on reducing the obstacles to happiness,” he said.

“Those obstacles remain substantial, including a growing national debt and high unemployment. Bhutan’s infrastructure, still woefully inadequate, has been built almost entirely by Indian companies and laborers. At first, Bhutan relied on Indians because few Bhutanese possessed the necessary skills. Now, a more educated and urbanized younger generation is refusing construction work as beneath it. “The bottom line is that we have to work harder,” Mr. Tobgay said. “We need to grow our own food, build our own homes. He lamented that so many of Bhutan’s youths are voluntarily unemployed, saying, “If we can restructure the construction sector to make it more attractive, that should provide a lot of jobs.”

“Mr. Tobgay has eliminated some of the restrictive customs enforced by the previous government, including occasional bans on vehicular traffic and a dress code requiring men to wear ghos, a dresslike traditional garment. He acknowledged that preserving the country’s traditional culture would be challenging in an era of rapid urbanization.

“Tobgay said one of his top priorities was to crack down on growing political corruption. The previous government was considering measures that would have weakened the country’s anticorruption agency, but Mr. Tobgay, who has shunned his predecessor’s limousine and luxury accommodations, said that he planned to strengthen it. “If corruption creeps in and takes root, we have had it,” Mr. Tobgay said. “We need to ensure that rule of law prevails.”

“He plans to host a weekly call-in radio program, hold monthly news conferences and have public office hours when anyone can come and complain. He has a blog and a Twitter account and is active on Facebook. “Friend me,” he said with a mischievous smile.

“He expressed a clear preference for India, which gives Bhutan considerable financial assistance, over China. “The friendship between India and Bhutan transcends party politics and personalities,” he said with some warmth. When asked about the country’s eastern neighbor, his face fell. “We engage with China. That is a reality.”

2018 Elections in Bhutan

In election in October, 2018, the incumbent party again. The ruling People's Democratic Party of former Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay came third in the first round of voting in September, surprisingly failing to advance to the second round and resulting in it losing all 32 seats. The second round was a contest between the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, the only other party with parliamentary representation, and the unrepresented Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa, which received the most votes in the first round. [Source: Wikipedia]

Party — First round votes, percent — Second round votes, percent — Seats — +/– seats Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa — 92,722; 31.85 percent — 172,268; 54.95 percent — 30 — +30 Druk Phuensum Tshogpa — 90,020; 30.92 percent — 141,205; 45.05 percent — 17 — +2 People's Democratic Party — 79,883; 27.44 percent — xxxxx — 0 — –32 Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party — 28,473; 9.78 percent; — xxxxx — 0 — New Total — 291,098 — 100.00 — 313,473 — 100.00 — 47 — 0

Voter turnout in the second, final round of election was 71.46 percent. The 47 members of the National Assembly are elected from single-member constituencies. Primary elections were held in September 2018 in which voters cast votes for parties. The top two parties are then able to field candidates in the main round of voting in October 2018 , in which members are elected using first-past-the-post voting.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Council of Bhutan (, National Portal of Bhutan, the Bhutan government’s main site (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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