Bhutan’s transition from an absolute monarchy to something different was always going to be a neat, orderly affair. The initiative for the transition came from a far-sighted monarch, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who abdicated in December 2006, at the age of 51, in favour of his eldest son — after announcing an unusual democratic project. In consequence, 28-year-old King Keshar Namgyal Wangchuck has the rare experience of ushering in democracy, urging his people to embrace it with “pride and confidence” but “first and foremost” to vote. The two competing parties in the first election, Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) or the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party, and the People’s Democratic Party vied with each other in being more loyal than the King. Not surprisingly, the runaway winner in the contest, DPT, was the party that was perceived as the more royalist of the two. With 44 of the 47 seats, DPT sees the vote as a mandate for continuity. The new government, under former Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley, would do no more than continue the policies laid down by the ‘dragon kings’ over the years. Indeed, there is little to separate the development strategy and policy thinking of the monarchy from that of either party. The entire political class is committed to the concept of ‘Gross National Happiness,’ which seeks to measure well-being in terms beyond material development. The Himalayan kingdom has done equally well in raising per capita income and preserving its natural environment. The King will continue to wield wide influence, although not supreme power.
Propitiously, the democratic experiment in Bhutan has been launched at a time of peace and prosperity. The decline and ignominious fall of the monarchy in Nepal must have influenced, in some indirect way, both the monarchy and the people of Bhutan. King Jigme Wangchuck did not want anyone in his line to become a prisoner of circumstance. Anticipating change, he clearly understood that it should be best managed during a period of political stability. As for the people of Bhutan, Nepal’s failed experiment with constitutional monarchy might have been one reason for their initial reluctance to embrace elective democracy. A new system of constitutional monarchy coexisting with a democratically elected government might have seemed like a failed model. Evidently, many Bhutanese have more faith in the sagacity of their King than in the accountability of their untried political parties. Bhutan can indeed move on with pride and confidence along its evolutionary path in the knowledge that democracy, as Winston Churchill noted a long time ago, “is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”