Bhutan: Fom Monarchy to Democracy

24 Dec, 2005    ·   1912

Ashok Sharma discusses the reasons behind King Wangchuk's decision to abdicate the throne and the larger process of democratization in Bhutan

Bhutan is in transition from monarchy to a democratic and parliamentary government. King Jigme Singye Wangchuk has decided to abdicate the throne in favour of his son, the 25-year-old Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk in 2008. He will be enthroned before Bhutan adopts a Constitution and holds its first ever polls to choose a Prime Minister under a parliamentary democracy. The King's role would be that of a titular head.

The transition began four years ago when the King handed over absolute powers to a council of ministers and empowered the National Assembly to force a royal abdication if three-quarters of its membership backed the motion. Earlier this year it unveiled a 34-point Constitution, which is now being sent to some 5,30,000 citizens for their views and is expected to be ratified in a referendum. Once adopted, the Constitution will replace a 1953 royal decree giving the monarch absolute power. Bhutan has witnessed remarkable progress in socio-economic development in recent years. Basic infrastructures like roads, hospitals and schools have improved considerably.

The response to the King's abdication in Bhutan has been one of bewilderment and shock rather than jubilation among its people. Bhutanese are happy with their traditional life style and they have full faith in the rule of the King. Happiness is the measure for development in Bhutan. A low literacy rate and poverty will test the proposed parliamentary system.

India has welcomed the King's decision to abdicate and make way for parliamentary democracy in Bhutan. Rendering it as a significant moment in the history of Bhutan, the External Affairs Ministry spokesperson said, "India, as always, wishes the people and government of Bhutan continued peace and stability, and the fulfilment of their aspirations as they embark towards the new constitutional system." Implications of this development for India- Bhutan relations are important as stability and prosperity of Thimphu is a vital stake for New Delhi.

India and Bhutan have traditionally enjoyed a warm and cordial relationship. Bhutan - as the closest ally of India in South Asia - always supported India in the SAARC and toed Indian line at the United Nations and international forums. A new "strategic partnership" has emerged after "Operation All Clear" when Bhutan expelled all insurgents from India that had taken refuge within its territory.

This year King Wangchuk was the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations, an honour bestowed on leaders of countries with which India has especially strong ties. India and Bhutan have excellent cooperation in hydropower projects, border management and security-related issues. Both are jointly upgrading border infrastructure and management through better roads and communication links as well as information sharing. India also contributes substantially to its development budget. It recently provided an assistance package worth $450mn to Bhutan for its ninth five-year plan ending 2007.

The parliamentary system would help strengthen relations between the two countries. India can also offer its help in establishing democratic institutions in Bhutan, if it so desires. Instead of dealing with a just one person under the monarchical system, India will now have to deal with a more plural and diversified power structure under a parliamentary system, which would call for skilful diplomacy.

The King's abdication may have shocked the people in Bhutan, but it has averted opposition or perhaps even a revolution in a bid for his ouster in the future. The step-by-step renunciation of power by the King, which began in 1998 and devolution of power in 2001, would gradually help the people of Bhutan to get accustomed to parliamentary democracy. The King's renunciation of power shows that absolute power of a monarchy is an anachronism in the present era of democracy. It may also have lessons for other countries in the region. King Wangchuk was right in saying in his abdication speech, "Why wait for a revolution?"