Bhutan votes as economic strife hits 'national happiness'
THIMPHU, Bhutan (AFP) - The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan voted in general elections Tuesday, with parties vowing to tackle serious economic challenges that call into question its longstanding policy of prioritising "Gross National Happiness" over growth.
Both parties contesting the vote are committed to a constitutionally enshrined philosophy of a government that measures its success by the "happiness and well-being of the people". Some voters had to trek for days to cast their ballots in the landlocked mountain nation of about 800,000 people, similar in area to Switzerland.
Foremost in the minds of many are the struggles facing the kingdom's younger generation, with chronic youth unemployment and a brain drain. "Taking part in elections is about securing a better future for us," said 22-year-old student Ugyen Tshering, after voting in the chilly mountain air in the capital Thimphu, with Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the background.
Bhutan's youth unemployment rate stands at 29 percent, according to the World Bank, while economic growth has sputtered along at an average of 1.7 percent over the past five years. "Job opportunities in Bhutan are scarce and the new government should focus on solving this, so young people don't leave abroad for greener pastures," Tshering added.
Young citizens searching for better financial and educational opportunities abroad have left in record numbers since the last elections, with Australia as their top destination. Around 15,000 Bhutanese were issued visas there in the 12 months before last July, according to a local news report -- more than the preceding six years combined and almost two percent of the kingdom's population.
"I hope for development in rural areas," said Sandhya Pradhan, 25, an architect, adding that boosting the education and health sectors was also important. "Both of the candidates are very capable," she added. "They will be able to encourage the youth currently in Australia to come back and work in Bhutan."
Voting closes at 5:00 pm (1100 GMT), with full results expected on Wednesday. Career civil servant Pema Chewang, 56, leader of the Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP), said the country was losing the "cream of the nation". His opponent, former prime minister and People's Democratic Party (PDP) chief Tshering Tobgay, 58, sounded the alarm over Bhutan's "unprecedented economic challenges and mass exodus".
His party's manifesto quoted government statistics showing that one in every eight people were "struggling to meet their basic needs for food" and other necessities. Housewife Yang Chen Dema, 65, from the farming village of Khasadrapchu, said challenges in rural areas she wanted to be tackled included a "drinking water shortage and poor road conditions".
Squeezed between India and China
Tourism, a small share of Bhutan's economy but a key earner of foreign currency, has yet to recover from the disruptions of the Covid pandemic. The previous government pursued several projects to diversify the economy, including a special economic zone on the Indian border and plans with a Singapore-based company to raise funds for a cryptocurrency-mining scheme.
Both parties have pledged a huge ramp-up of investment in hydropower, its primary source of energy. Bhutan held elections for the first time in 2008 after political reforms established a bicameral parliament soon after the start of the reign of the present king, who remains hugely popular.
Namgay, 92, who uses only one name, said he had voted in every election as democracy was something he valued. "I am nearing the end of life, so voting is something I will do as long as I can," he said, holding up his ink-stained finger to show he had cast a ballot.
Campaigns in the Buddhist-majority nation have always been subdued affairs, with strict rules mandating that election materials can only be posted on public notice boards. Bhutan lies sandwiched between the globe's two most populous countries, China and India, who are watching with keen interest as they eye strategic contested border zones.