Bhutan takes first step towards democracy

More than 70 per cent of voters turned out to elect Bhutan's National Assembly Keystone

Bhutan - a long-time recipient of Swiss development aid – earlier this week renounced its absolute monarchy after legislative elections in the country.

This content was published on March 29, 2008 - 10:39

The move is part of the democratic transition taking place in Bhutan, which is about the same size as Switzerland.

"If there is a country in the region that can introduce and live democracy, it's Bhutan," Werner Kuelling, local head of Swiss aid organisation Helvetas, said after the elections which ended a century of absolute monarchy.

The elections, with a 79 per cent turnout, resulted in a win for the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (DPT), which is led by a former prime minister who studied in the United States.

It was a crushing victory - 45 seats compared with two won by the People's Democratic Party led by the king's uncle.

This "tidal wave" was a surprise, Kuelling says. He feels the people did not want a party that was close to the royal family, which has a monopoly on economic power.

But he adds that essentially the two parties' programmes were quite close, with infrastructure and economic development on both agendas.

Kuelling believes the lack of a real opposition "is not good for democracy in Bhutan and comes from playing the democratic game", but he remains optimistic about the future.

After official confirmation of the results, the winning party must now form a government and its leader will become the first prime minister of the country chosen by universal suffrage.

A new constitution will also be voted on, after which the king is due to hand over many of his powers.

"His influence will remain quite strong, at least as strong as that of the king of Thailand," explained Walter Meyer, head of the East Asia division of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

The king's will

The transition towards democracy in a country that was for many years isolated was the wish of the father of the young king who was crowned in 2006. "It was a revolution from on high, a little against public opinion," Kuelling says.

In a recent article, Thierry Mathou, a French specialist on Bhutan, said the "reluctance to change shown by the people and the bureaucrats shows that political life in Bhutan still has to be created".

The Bhutan monarchy wants to use controlled reforms to respond to numerous challenges, such as a rural exodus, higher standards of teaching, the growth in consumerism, the development of the media and crime, explains Thierry Mathou.

Another problem is the Nepalese minority. In a system in which Buddhist values are the main ideology, this mainly Hindu minority has been subjected to regular pressure over the years.

Tens of thousands are believed to have left the country and have crowded into United Nations refugee camps in Nepal.

It is an issue that Kuelling says can be resolved with the desire shown by a number of countries, including the United States, to welcome them.

Exiles and minorities

Several news agencies have echoed criticism from exiles that the Nepalese minority established in the south of Bhutan were not able to vote in the elections because they did not have identity cards.

"Bhutan has to make progress in regard to minorities and citizenship," Meyer said. "Apparently there has been no desire to find solutions before now."

Amnesty International has not been following the interior situation of Bhutan for at least five years.

"Just because we are not publishing anything does not mean nothing is happening," says Daniel Bolomey, general secretary of the Swiss branch of Amnesty.

According to Swiss on the ground, Bhutan is a "success story" for development aid.

"It is a success because good governance is on the increase," explains Meyer. "The foundations are very advanced in the fields of education, management of natural resources and rural development."

Spectrum of projects

The first assistance from Switzerland dates back to the 1960s. The SDC and Helvetas opened an office in the capital in 1983 in order to develop a vast spectrum of projects ranging from agriculture to teacher training and constitutional law.

A priority country for the SDC until 2006, Bhutan has seen aid budgets from Switzerland stagnate, with poorer and more problematic countries now higher on the list. But Bern says it intends to offer help in the current democratic transition.

Bern will continue to provide about SFr3 million ($3.01 million) a year until 2012, compared with SFr6 million in 2006. It's an approach agreed on with Helvetas, which will evaluate the needs and aspirations of the Bhutanese.

Switzerland, through Helvetas, will remain active in the area of construction of suspension bridges and the sustainable management of forests. Bilaterally with the government, there are plans for projects that include an anti-corruption institution and support for setting up and independent legal system.

"The ties between Switzerland and Bhutan are strong and in the future strategic relations will continue. All that remains is to define them," added Meyer.

swissinfo, Pierre-François Besson


A small Buddhist country of about 46,500 square km, located between China and India.

It has always feared for its security, although it has by and large escaped colonisation. It has been led by the Wangchuk dynasties that took power in 1907.

Estimates of the country's population vary between 800,000 and 2.3 million. The difference is due in part to the issue of the Nepalese minority.

Bhutan did not have any roads or telephones until the 1960s and although it has since been modernised, the country remains mainly rural and relatively isolated. The economy is based on agriculture, forestry, some tourism and the sale of hydraulic power to India.

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Symbolic and emotional ties between Switzerland and Bhutan started in the 1940s after the queen mother Ashi Kesang Choden Wangduck and the daughter of Swiss industrialist Fritz Von Schulthess met while studying at Cambridge.

About SFr150 million has been invested in Bhutan by Switzerland to date from a foundation created by Von Schultess, Helvetas and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

Both with mountains and of a similar size, the two countries maintain friendly relations at the highest level and tend to support each another in international organisations.

According to the Swiss foreign ministry, about 20 Swiss nationals live in Bhutan. The Swiss-Bhutan society is preparing to publish a book about relations between the two countries.

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