Bhutan Conducts Mock Election

The tiny, isolated mountain kingdom of Bhutan has conducted a mock election in preparation for ending a century of absolute rule by the monarchy, and turning the country into a parliamentary democracy next year. Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi on the efforts by this deeply traditional and secluded country to enter the 21st century.

It was a full-fledged dress rehearsal in which voters in towns and remote mountain villages headed to more than 800 polling stations to learn how to choose their own leaders. The dummy elections involved the works - fictional parties and imaginary manifestos, electronic voting machines, and observers from India and the United Nations.

The practice drill is a two-stage process. The two most successful parties in Saturday's mock round will compete in another round of practice voting on May 28.

Bhutan's chief election commissioner, Dasho Kunzang Wangdi, says the purpose of the rehearsal is simple - to ensure that everything works smoothly when real elections to choose Bhutan's first parliament take place in 2008.

"Through this, we would like to take the whole of Bhutan through an election drill so that when real elections come, people are fully in [the] picture as to how to go about [it]. On the whole, [the] response is very good, people are very excited," he said.

The task of transforming Bhutan into a democracy began in 2001, when then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuk announced that the monarchy would step aside in favor of a parliamentary democracy.

A draft constitution has already been prepared. Election Commissioner Wangdi says painstaking preparations have been made for the actual elections.

"We had to draft a series of laws, then rules, regulations, guidelines, and also we had to conduct the nationwide voter education and training of electoral officers, and also put a system of election in place," he added.

People's responses to the vote in the secluded country have been mixed. The former king is highly popular, and many saw no need for change. But some are excited and curious to see what democracy will bring. Still others have expressed cynicism, saying democracy has done little to improve conditions in neighboring South Asian nations.

Some are simply confused about what democracy involves - asking if they have to pay to vote, or if they would face punishment if they stayed away.

It has not been easy to recruit potential candidates. Only two political parties have been formed so far, despite appeals from the Election Commission.

The transition to democracy will be a giant leap for a country that has been among the world's last to modernize. Bhutan is a predominately Buddhist nation located between India and Tibet. It had no roads, telephones or currency until the 1960s. Television and the Internet were introduced only in 1999. Most of the country's 700,000 people live in villages, and are still deeply traditional.

However, the former king has been widely hailed as an enlightened monarch who is in step with the times. He said he wanted to bring in democracy while there is peace. Last year, he abdicated in favor of his eldest son.