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The Himalayan Spring Continues: Bhutan Holds Elections for Upper House

May 9, 2013 3 minute Read by Kent Patton

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.

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