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The Himalayan Spring Continues: Bhutan Holds Elections for Upper House
On April 23, Bhutan held elections for its National Council, the upper body of the parliament. By all accounts, and there aren’t many, the elections were successful and the newest democracy in Asia has shown the world how bold vision and leadership can reshape a country. (You can see details here and here.)
Bhutan is one of the most intriguing models for democratic development and might serve as an instructive case for monarchs struggling to reform their systems of governance (e.g. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Morocco, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, etc.). Bhutan, a deeply traditional nation, is bordered by the behemoths of China and India, one of the reasons they were often wary of outsiders. It wasn’t until 1999 that a ban on television and the internet was lifted. Thus, their relatively rapid move toward a more transparent and open democratic system is remarkable.
In 2005, King Jigme Signe Wangchuck announced that he would not only be creating a constitutional monarchy but also abdicating the throne. His son became king in 2006 and the first elections for parliament were held in 2007 (for the upper house) and 2008 (for the lower). This year’s elections mark an important consolidation of Bhutan’s representative institutions and signal that reforms need not take generations.
Bhutan is one of a handful of countries that Freedom House recognizes as having made progress in its Freedom in the World rankings. Bhutan transitioned from “not free” to “partly free” status in 2008 and this year’s report noted positively the country’s gradual, but steady progress.
Instead of trying to manage the reform process, the King of Bhutan placed his trust both in his subjects and in the institutions that would represent them. And then he empowered those institutions. Was there risk involved? Undoubtedly, but doing nothing posed a greater risk to the kingdom.
The Arab world has seen its share of popular revolt, but one interesting fact remains: the reformist monarchies have fared better than the authoritarian republics. The rulers of Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco have allowed parties to form and have given a measure of power to their parliaments. While not perfect, their elections have been much fairer than the rest of the region. Also, they have provided significant freedom for civil society organizations. Thus the monarchies maintain significant legitimacy.
Maybe Bhutan’s boldness can serve as a model for those rulers who want to transition to constitutional monarchies. Trusting your people and empowering democratic institutions seems a model worth emulating.
Kent Patton is the editor of the Freedom Collection blog.
Chinese Prisoner’s Death Holds a Message for Americans and China
Liu Xiaobo, China’s most prominent dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner died this week. His death holds a message for Americans and for China.
Release of Chinese Political Prisoner a Timely Reminder to Support Freedom Advocates Abroad
More than half the world’s population still lives in countries where basic political rights and civil liberties are only partly respected, if at all.
Bringing Freedom to the Forefront of 21st Century Politics
Is the global liberal democratic order in danger? Purposefully constructed in the aftermath of World War II, this order -- and the American leadership that is central to its success --has contributed to securing peace and expanding prosperity in the United States and around the world. Today, that order appears to be dissolving. This crisis is not new or sudden; it has been mounting for several years. Global challenges like authoritarian capitalism, violent extremism, demographic pressures, and displaced populations have placed global freedom in decline. Fraying traditional alliances united by core values of freedom are increasingly weak to respond. It is alarming that the downdraft in democratic resilience over the past decade or more includes countries that have long been part of the consolidated democratic West. This is democratic deconsolidation. In much of the Western world, we see a rise in demagogic populism, illiberalism, nationalism, protectionism, and waning conf
The Importance of Speaking Truth to Tyrants
What the president of the United States says matters. Even during the realpolitik policies of détente under Richard Nixon, it was still clear that American policy was based on a set of core values. Nixon’s practical goals of reaching deals with America’s adversaries was never based on the “great chemistry” with himself or praising the Soviet or Communist Chinese leadership doing a “fantastic job.” When the president aligns himself with the autocrats and dictators, he aligns America with their oppression. He sends a message that corruption and brutality are not our concern. Contrast that with how Ronald Reagan defied much of world opinion in calling out the brutality of the Soviet system. Natan Sharansky, then a refusenik imprisoned in a Soviet gulag, later wrote for the Weekly Standard of his thoughts on Reagan’s pronouncement that the USSR was an evil empire: “It was the great, brilliant moment whe