Ascencion to Democracy: Bhutan

By Sille Larsen Nielsen

Democracy is tough to achieve. These words remind us of the people currently risking their lives for a chance of democracy in Yemen, Libya and Syria. In comparison, there is a small nation on the other side of the world which seldom appears in western media: Bhutan. This country holds an extraordinary and quite unique story that deserves our attention. It represents a remarkable and peaceful attempt of transitioning into democracy wherein the democratic challenges facing this nation have been quite the opposite of what we are currently witnessing in North Africa and the Middle East.

The Kingdom of Bhutan boasts a population of a mere 683,000 people, predominately Buddhists. The country is a small landlocked state in South Asia, located at the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains with two very big neighbours, India to the south and China to the north. Despite this, Bhutan has still managed to hold their ground between these powerful nations, mainly by building a partnership with India in which Bhutan supplies electricity in return for development assistance and protection.

It is a pearl of natural beauty with its many mountains that make it both difficult to travel but also offer a protective fortress. The average tourist is in the country for about a week, and will travel only with an accompanying guide (as following Bhutan’s travel regulations). Tourists will most likely visit the capital of Thimphu, climb to the Temple Tiger’s Nest 3,200 meters above sea level, and attempt to witness both the rare black-necked crane or the yak-ox. They will have read up on the history of Bhutan and its Gross National Happiness.

But what is more interesting is the part of Bhutan that tourists likely have not read about.

On 24 March 2008, Bhutan officially transitioned to a modern constitutional democracy by hosting its first national electoral process. Unlike the elections held in other parts of South Asia in 2008, such as in Pakistan and Nepal, the electoral process in Bhutan was not precipitated by a grassroot uprising demanding political change. Instead, it was a return of power to the people. Bhutan’s fourth King, Jigme Singhye Wangchuk (popularly referred to as “the father of democratic Bhutan”), finalised a long-term vision of democratisation and decentralisation by handing over executive power to elected representatives. Remarkably, this handover occurred amongst much protest and unwillingness by his subjects – many Bhutanese people were content and happy with their traditional monarchy.

One might notice, with a smile, that during the dummy elections in 2007, which were designed to prepare the country for the real deal, people were asked to vote between fictional Yellow and Red parties. Yellow, being the traditional colour of royalty, won a landslide victory. “I still prefer the monarchy”, one voter said.

The story of Bhutan’s democratic development is often portrayed as one of romance, but it was in fact hard political work, which has been ongoing for years and is still evolving. To proclaim that democracy was introduced in 2008 and has seen three successful years, is understating (and dismissing) the groundwork that led to the actual development. In fact, many elements of democracy were already in place before the 2008 transition, which is the main reason why Bhutan has experienced a more peaceful metamorphosis than other countries. And still, democracy in Bhutan is still on its uphill climb.

Following his father’s death in 1972, and at the age of 16, Jigme Singhye Wangchuk became not only the fourth King in Bhutan but also one of the world’s youngest monarchs. From then and to the 2008 elections, His Majesty presided over many political reforms, all creating the democratic elements precipitating the actual implementation of democracy. These included a network of infrastructure, free education, health care, sanitation facilities, safe drinking water for more than 80 per cent of the country, and reliable electricity (after all, peaceful people are first and foremost well fed and taken care of).

Starting out slowly, in 1981 the King established District Development Committees. This followed a more significant political reform in 1998 where His Majesty transferred all executive authority to an elected council of Ministers, allowing for the impeachment of the King (still the constitutional head) by a 2/3 majority vote by the National Assembly as well as introducing a mandatory retirement age of 65 for the monarch. The year after, Internet and television were formally launched in Bhutan, undoubtedly representing an important step towards modernisation and the important democratic element of communication and dialogue. In 2001 the Constitutional Committee was created; the body oversaw the final constitutional draft in 2007 which allowed for the separation of legislative, executive and judicial power – much like the successful democracies of the West.

What this historical development of democracy in Bhutan shows is that the roots of the democratic movement stretched into Bhutanese society well before the 2008 elections. But it is also underpinned by the development of a cultural attitude as well, one in which the people maintain a homogenous set of values that prioritises education, health and equality.

After spending two months in the country, the people I spoke with - who ranged from school children to business leaders and expats to Members of Parliament and even His Majesty the King – all voiced the same message: the mission of Bhutan’s democracy is to educate the young, to create employment, protect the environment, improve health, support gender equality and promote Bhutanese culture.

It is no coincidence that these values were maintained from the monarchy years through the transition to the democracy, as they are fundamental aspects of a government that can be successfully run by the people. But, as stated in the beginning, democracy is tough to achieve; it is a never-ending process. Twenty-three per cent of Bhutan’s citizens are still living under the poverty line, in some areas it is closer to 70 per cent, and life expectancy for both men and women is only at 66 years. The literacy rate is barely 60 per cent.

The next challenges on the horizon are the first local government elections on a non-political party basis, which are to be held in the country later this month. For many, the introduction of this new style of governance has proven difficult in regards to the bureaucratic challenges, especially since democratic change first began on a national level and is filtering its way down to the local level.

Disqualified political candidates are still voicing their grievances to the King and the Election Committee is unsure of the correct way to handle the situation and therefore deferring to the King’s recommendations. On the other hand, the Supreme Court recently ruled that all tax legislation had to go through Parliament, which not only overturned administrative decisions made by the government but it also set precedence for the long-term balance between the separated powers.

Despite this, democratic development is still underway in Bhutan, and the evolution will continue. Following Bhutan’s political trajectory would bring great insight and wisdom to those who wish to promote democracy, particularly in light of the country’s great achievements. Royalists aside, the 2008 elections saw an almost 80 per cent voter turnout – 12 per cent higher than Americans who showed up for the Presidential election in 2008. Those figures speak for themselves. 


Sille Larsen Nielsen is a Danish national and holds a MA in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She is currently pursuing expertise in Global Political Studies at Malmo University in Sweden. Her research interests include refugee and migration issues.


11 June 2011


Photo Credit: © Sille Larsen Nielsen