The nastiness of election campaigns pervades the news these days and dissatisfaction runs high towards most politicians in most developed countries. The words “happy”, “satisfied”, and “trusting” don’t immediately come to mind where political processes are concerned right now, even though I don’t think any of us would disagree with the vast advantages of democracy, as messy as it can be. As I reflected, yet again, on why it has to be this way, I thought of lessons in democracy currently underway in the small Himalayan country of Bhutan.
How about an absolute monarchy instead? Can you imagine having a king decide everything that happens in your country? No nasty elections, no mud-slinging. Would it be easier? Better? Would we be happier?
Until fairly recently, that’s exactly what happened in Bhutan, a small Buddhist kingdom which for centuries existed in landlocked and mountain-rimmed isolation, a feudal society living largely by subsistence farming, growing rice in paddies on high hillsides and herding yaks from meadow to meadow as the seasons changed.
There’s another side to the story. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the Bhutanese people have been ruled by a hereditary monarchy of remarkably enlightened men, all fully engaged in nation building and bringing Bhutan out of its isolation and into the modern age. In the 5 generations of their rule, they have abolished serfdom, introduced modern education, invested in educating their brightest young people abroad before their own education system was in place so as to develop a professional civil service, built roads, and initiated new areas of economic development. As well, the absolute monarch established a National Assembly, opened up to the world through treaties and participation in the UN, and modernized their legal code.
It was their 4th king who instituted the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) in 1972, declaring that quality of life and social progress is just as important as economic progress. King Jigme Singye Wangchuk described the four pillars of GNH for Bhutan as good governance, stewardship of cultural values, environment conservation, and sustainable development. A similar measure is now calculated by the UN, and Bhutan’s high ranking on the UN’s Happiness scale is way out of proportion with other developing countries.
The King of Bhutan has been a beloved figure since the current hereditary monarchy began over a hundred years ago. And it was with huge dismay on the part of the population that in 2005 the 4th king announced that he would be stepping down in favour of his son, Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Wangchuk, and that he was going to devolve power to the people. The absolute monarchy would become a constitutional monarchy, with elections taking place in 2008. This is the kind of change that more typically comes out of oppression and unrest on the part of the people, often resulting in war and then a change to democracy, demanded by the people. In this case, the monarch decreed that his subjects would move to democracy, his subjects who looked to him for guidance, answers, and support. They didn’t want democracy, they wanted him!
The Bhutanese had a few years to get used to the idea. They needed to understand how a multi-party system would work. Parties had to be created from scratch. A mock election was held in 2007 to help people gain familiarity with the process. For the mock election, four fake parties were created, each with a main defining platform issue: the Yellow Party (traditional values), the Blue Party (fairness and accountability), the Red Party (industrial development), and the Green Party (environment). The mock elections had a high participation rate and it was a useful learning experience. The real election, in March 2008, saw nearly 80% of eligible voters turn out to vote, in what has to be one of the most challenging places on earth to get from point A to point B. Everything is built on a mountain side.
As was reported in many international newspapers, people said they were voting with a heavy heart, but that’s what their king wanted them to do. They could only hope that democracy would be a good thing. And now they have their first democratically elected Prime Minister, an opposition party, and a new young king who will have a constitutional role in governance. It’s the beginning of a new world for the Bhutanese, and it’s built on a good foundation. As was reported in the Economist at the time of the election, “Few elected governments could boast of the king’s record. Accelerating a reform process begun by his father, whom he succeeded in 1972, the king transformed Bhutan from one of the world’s most reclusive poor countries to one of its more enlightened.”
My question to all of us who are experiencing angst over political realities in our own democracies (the U.S., Canada, and most other places; I’m not pointing particular fingers here): what should we say to the Bhutanese who are concerned about moving to a democracy? I do think that democracy is the best game in town, but I wish someone could think of ways to get more of the “game” out of it and put more of the needs of the people it serves into it instead. The good news is that in the end we do get to vote. And my observation is that at the end of the day, the people speak. Fingers crossed for all of us, including the special Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
Other posts about Bhutan:
Photo credits:Howard Fritz