Lifestyle & Belief

Bhutan votes in second-ever general election despite monsoon rains (PHOTOS)

KATHMANDU, Nepal — The Himalayan nation of Bhutan went to the polls on Friday in the country's second-ever general election.

The voting is being held in two stages with the first deciding which of the four political parties would make it to the second round.

Voters braved torrential rains to decide whether the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) party would remain in power despite a challenge by opposition People’s Democratic Party.

DPT won by a huge margin in the last elections against the People's Democratic Party, securing 45 of 47 seats in parliament. The center-right DPT is expected to win again with the support of rural voters.

Two new parties are also vying for seats in parliament this time around: the Druk Chirwang Tshogpa and Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa parties, both of which are center-left and led by women.

Test of democracy

As Bhutan heads to the polls, the most compelling question is whether the new democracy can fully emerge as a representative of the people, or will the elected government remain a proto-feudal representative of the elite.

According to Kunkhen Dorji, an analyst affiliated with India's Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), there are some good signs.

The number of candidates contesting has increased by about a third compared with 2008, and the fact that they represent five parties, rather than just two, suggests there are more voices in the mix.

However, some experts believe that the ruling party, which represents the elite of the tiny nation, is unbeatable, and the fracturing of the electorate will only weaken the opposition, argues Dorji.

Friday's voting would see two of the parties eliminated before the second round of voting on July 13.

In mountainous Bhutan, elections are challenging logistically, despite a population of only around 400,000 people. Setting up polling stations and voting is even more difficult during monsoon season when trails are muddied.

The kingdom of Bhutan witnessed its first general election in 2008, effectively ending the century-old monarchy.

Though the king is still the constitutional head of government, he must retire by 65 and can be deposed by a two-thirds majority of parliament.

Divided Bhutan

The election results could expose some fissures on the popular notion of Gross National Happiness, an index Bhutan uses to measure the material and mental wealth of its citizens.

A virtual vassal state to larger India, Bhutan has little or no industry, yet Mercedes-Benzes whiz down its pristine alpine roads, suggesting that there are two kinds of happiness in the former kingdom: One zooming forward and the other protectively compelled to remain in the past.

In addition to being the only country to measure Gross National Happiness, Bhutan has other quirks. It only introduced television in 1999 and restricts mass tourism.

The country has also vowed to ban pesticides on its crops, making it the only country that has pledged to go 100 percent organic.

Concerns in this year's elections? Jobs, corruption scandals, a liquidity crunch brought on by the shortage of Indian rupees and a weak private sector.