Voters in Bhutan, “Land of the Thunder Dragon”, went to the polls Saturday in the first round of only the third election in the small Himalayan nation wedged between rivals India and China. The two parties with the most votes will contest a runoff on October 18, with Harvard-educated Tshering Tobgay, 52, hoping for a second consecutive term as prime minister. But the keen mountain-biker’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) faces a tough challenge from the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), winner of Bhutan’s first election in 2008, and two other parties. The 800,000 inhabitants of Switzerland-sized Bhutan got television in 1999 and democracy arrived only in 2008 when its “dragon kings” ceded absolute power.
But it has tried to shield itself from the downsides of modernisation, striving for Gross National Happiness, being carbon-negative and keeping tourist numbers down with a daily fee of $250 per visitor in high season.
Opinion polls are banned and analysts are thin on the ground but an observer told AFP that the PDP had an edge over its handling of the economy, with growth strong and unemployment low.
Corruption, rural poverty, youth unemployment and the prevalence of criminal gangs remain challenges, however.