Monday, March 24, 2008

First elections in Bhutan

“Bhutan is a tiny mountain kingdom nestled in the Himalaya of Central Asia, just south of Tibet, north of India, and east of Nepal….” I was charmed by Bhutan when I visited in 2001 – so charmed that my husband and I wrote a short law review article about our meeting with a Bhutanese judge that began with those words. (A law review article is an unusual tribute, to be sure, but it was what we had to offer.) We were struck by many aspects of Bhutan: its stunning, nearly vertical landscape; its government’s insistence on maintaining a particular aesthetic in dress, architecture, and so on; its adoption of a “Gross National Happiness” standard in lieu of GNP as the benchmark for national success; and, in the legal arena, the philosophy of “simple justice” described to us by a Bhutanese judge. We described our meeting with the judge in our article, “Simple Justice,” and took note of the tensions between his philosophy and the process of codification and harmonization undertaken by the Bhutanese government to facilitate foreign investment and interaction.
Today, Bhutan held its first national elections at the behest of the current and former kings, who have been steadily and voluntarily divesting themselves of power for some years now. According to news reports (e.g., here and here), these elections have been marked by some of the same tensions we noted in the legal sphere: concern about destabilizing what was described as a generally satisfactory arrangement, distaste for the conflict that elections have catalyzed in neighboring countries, questions about the eligibility and participation of Bhutanese residents of Nepali ethnicity, and so on. Nonetheless, the elections went forward, with a reported voter turnout near 80% and a decisive result (44 of 47 seats to one party, according to a preliminary count).

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