It must be the most genteel canvassing operation in the world. Lily Wangchuk, who is running for a seat in the National Assembly, chats with a shaven-headed monk in the shade of a weeping willow, she in a silk kira (traditional dress for Bhutanese women), he in maroon robes. A passer-by stops to laud her expertise. A shopkeeper decries the coarseness of democracy—it is only ten years since the king surrendered absolute authority—before insisting that she stay for a cup of tea.
Yet the voters of Bhutan, a Himalayan country of 800,000 sandwiched between India and China, are capable of delivering harsh verdicts. The second round of voting takes place on October 18th. In the first, last month, voters selected two parties to nominate candidates for the second round. To general astonishment (polling is not permitted), the ruling party was eliminated. An upstart outfit, the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), took first place and Wangchuk’s relatively established opposition party, Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), came a close second.
Many Bhutanese harbour mixed feelings about the transition to constitutional democracy. Echoing the shopkeeper, a grandee declares that, given the choice, the people would “take back monarchy in a heartbeat”. The surprise was that so many of the 290,000 voters were keen to kick out the incumbent government. Its economic record, at least, had been impressive: in its five years in office annual GDP growth had accelerated from 2% to 7%.
Differences between the parties’ platforms were subtle at best. Foreign policy is not mentioned explicitly, yet it may have played a significant role. Bhutanese remember the fate of two other Himalayan kingdoms, Tibet and Sikkim, which were swallowed up by China and India respectively. Last year Indian and Chinese troops had a tense confrontation over a disputed patch of territory where China, India and Bhutan all meet. India has near imperial power in the kingdom, and throws its weight about in Bhutanese politics. After the prime minister of the previous DPT government met his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of a conference in Brazil in 2012, India grew chilly. Six days before the subsequent election, it abruptly ended subsidised sales of cooking gas to the kingdom. The pain was instant, and the DPT was booted out.
This year both the DPT and the DNT touched on external matters in a roundabout way in their campaigns, by complaining about foreign debts for dam-building, dependence on imported fuel and the government’s failure to attract a Japanese embassy—all matters that hint at India’s overbearing influence. “Sovereignty, security, self-sufficiency” was the DPT’s dog-whistle slogan. A young businessman wishes his country were more open to China. He sells caterpillar fungus, which is used as an aphrodisiac there. He believes that Chinese tourists bring more money to the kingdom than those of all other nationalities put together.
Wangchuk, however, is most interested in social issues, in particular the treatment of women. One of her aides, a 27-year-old, argues that youth unemployment is to blame for depression, suicide and drug use, and could be reduced by a more engaged and representative government. As he holds forth, some older voters listen quietly—too polite to disagree.