Bhutanese brave mountains and monsoon for election

Bhutanese voters wait to cast their vote as they line up outside a polling station in Paro on May 31, 2013.

THIMPHU, Bhutan - Voters in Bhutan braved heavy rain and treacherous mountain paths to cast their ballots on Friday as the "land of the thunder dragon" began electing a government for only the second time.

Wearing traditional dress and sheltering under umbrellas, Bhutanese queued patiently at polling stations in the isolated Himalayan nation in the first round of voting to determine the lower house of parliament.

"There are so many pledges in their (politicians') manifestos but basically what we expect is a government that can bring about happiness to the people and at the same time economic development," said Chimi Dorji, 35, as he waited to vote in Dopshari village, about an hour-and-a-half drive from the capital Thimphu.

"Because without economic prosperity there can't be happiness," he added.

Bhutan is the only country in the world to pursue "Gross National Happiness", a development model that measures the mental as well as material well-being of citizens.

Other policies that set the country apart include banning television until 1999 and keeping out mass tourism to shield its Buddhist culture from foreign influence.

While the electorate comprises fewer than 400,000 people, voting is a huge logistical challenge across the rugged country, where democracy was ushered in just five years ago after Bhutan's "dragon kings" ceded absolute power.

In the run up to the poll, officials trekked for up to seven days to reach voters in the most remote corners of the country.

Armed with satellite phones to send in results, officials have battled heavy rains and slippery leech-infested trails to ensure that even isolated yak-owning nomads can cast their vote, the national Kuensel newspaper reported.

"Because the monsoon period has started people may face a little difficulty in climbing the mountains... but as of now all are set and ready," Sherab Zangpo, a spokesman for the Election Commission of Bhutan, told AFP.

Voters will choose from four parties in Friday's primary round of voting for the National Assembly.

The two most popular parties will then contest a run-off round on July 13 to form the next government.

In Dopshari village, men wearing the traditional "gho" robe and women the "kira" dress waited to cast their ballots, some of them chewing betel nut to pass the time.

Many took the secret ballot seriously and were unwilling to disclose their vote, but true to Bhutan's reputation, happiness was high on the agenda.

In the country's first election in 2008, the centre-right Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) won a huge landslide and secured 45 of 47 seats available against the People's Democratic Party.

This time two new centre-left parties are joining the contest, both led by women, but the DPT is generally expected to win again through its popularity with rural communities, which make up about 70 per cent of the population.

In the past five years they have seen hugely improved access to roads, electricity and mobile phone networks. But many educated, urban voters are less impressed with the government's work, said political analyst Kencho Wangdi.

Their concerns include a string of corruption scandals, a lack of new jobs, a weak private sector and a rupee liquidity crunch.

Bhutan is heavily dependent on its neighbour India for aid, investment and imports, and too much demand caused stocks of the Indian rupee to run out last year. Bank loans and imports of cars and luxury goods are still banned in Bhutan as a result.

Despite urban people's frustrations, they are likely to hold less sway over rural voters than they did in 2008 when the country somewhat reluctantly embraced democracy on the command of the revered monarch, Wangdi said.

"Now after five years... the sense is that they can make up their own mind. They know a fair amount about what democracy is and who to vote for, and they're saying that they will vote based on informed choices."

Turnout was just 45 per cent in an election last month for the upper house of parliament, the National Council, but greater interest is expected on Friday, which has been declared a public holiday.

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