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Democracy from Above: Regime Transition in the Kingdom of Bhutan Sinpeng, Aim 2007-12

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 Democracy from Above: Regime Transition in the Kingdom
of Bhutan
Aim Sinpeng*
The tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan became the world's
newest democracy this year when its first-ever multi-party
election ended over a century of monarchical rule. On March
24, over 80% of eligible Bhutanese voters heeded the King's
order and flooded the polls to cast their votes. The Druk
Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) secured a landslide victory,
winning forty-five out of forty-seven seats in the National
Assembly. What explained the recent political regime
transformation from an absolute monarchy to democracy in
the Kingdom of Bhutan?
Questions relating to why certain countries transition to a
democracy when some others do not, have been among the
most pivotal and heatedly debated issues for the study of
democracy. Over the course of forty years, several political
theorists, such as Samuel Huntington and Seymour Martin
Lipset, have tried to outline a broad conceptual framework for
the types of societies that would be "conducive" to the
emergence and the sustainability of democracy. Yet, each
time an odd case comes along (i.e. Singapore, South Africa)
that defies the cookie-cutter theoretical structure. This
prompts political scientists to revisit old theories and draw up
new ones to explain such outliers. To this end, our
understanding of democratisation is not a static set of beliefs,
but a rather fluid and ever-changing view. Bhutan's transition
to democracy is an exceptionally unique case that wiU help
enrich the overaU literature on democracy as well as further
enhance our understanding of the most studied political
system in the world.
Three questions will be discussed in this paper. First, can the
* A PhD Political Science candidate, University of British Columbia,
Vancouver, Canada
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
recent regime change in Bhutan be contributed to a classical
modernisation theory? Although many advocates of
modernisation theory have received their fair share of
criticism over the years, the theory has stood the test of time
relatively weff and has remained one of the most cited
democratisation schools of thought, especiaUy in Asia where
the correlation between the level of economic development
and stable democracy is strongest with the advent of
democracy in South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan occurring at
around the same time as the establishments of their
economic institutions. It is no surprise that followers of
Bhutanese politics may attribute the recent change in the
country's political system to the rise in the population's
income. But is this the case of Bhutan?
Second, if the structuralist school of thought, including the
modernisation theory, does not explain the introduction of
democracy to Bhutan's political system, then what might
explain the phenomenon? Can a competing theory of the
study of regime change - the voluntarist school of thought -
bears the answers to such question?
Third, what are the implications of the answers to the above
two questions to the future of the political system in Bhutan?
What might be challenges that are laying ahead for the
proponents of democracy in Bhutan? Moreover, how can the
case of Bhutan's democratisation enrich the overall
knowledge of the theories of regime study amongst political
Few case studies offer a clear-cut voluntarist approach more
clearly than Bhutan. Indeed, the transition to democracy is
single-handedly introduced and carried out by the monarchy
itself. Despite several signs of improved social and economic
conditions amongst the populace, the Bhutanese people have
i Fukuyama, F (2005). "Confucianism and Democracy," in L.
Diamond, M. F. Plattner & P. J. Costopoulos (eds.) World Religions
and Democracy. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
 Democracy from Above
neither developed a sizable middle class nor a sense of civic
and political consciousness to push for political change. Quite
the contrary, whenever the monarchy implements
modernisation or liberalisation reforms, the Bhutanese public
resists any change that would devolve the power away from
their beloved monarch. Consequently, the historic
transformation of the system of governance to democracy
represents, by and large, a directive from the royal family, not
the wish of the people. The people have entrusted their
benevolent King to know what would be best for the country,
and would only be too happy to follow his order.
The first part of the essay wiU focus on theoretical framework
of structuralist and voluntarist approaches on political regime
change. The second part wiU address Bhutan's underlying
social and economic conditions prior to the regime
transformation. Analyses wiU be given as to why regime
change was not caUed for by the mass, but rather instigated
by the ultimate leader of the nation. The historic election, to
most Bhutanese, represents a "change in continuity"2, rather
than a holistic political transformation.
Structuralist v. Voluntarist
The study of regime transformation is dominated by two
competing theories:   structuralism  and voluntarism.3   Some
2 This term was coined by Thierry Mathou in Mathou, T (2000). "The
politics of Bhutan: Change in continuity," Journal of Bhutan Studies,
2(2), 250-262. Retrieved from
02 02 09.pdf
3 Refer to the following literature for analyses of structuralist and
voluntarist arguments: O'Donnell, G. & Schmitter, P (1986).
Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies. Baltimore: John
Hopkins University Press; Bermeo, N (1990). "Rethinking Regime
Change," Comparative Politics, 22, 359-377; Mahoney, J. & Snyder,
R (1999). "Rethinking Agency and Structure in the Study of Regime
Change," Studies in Comparative International Development, 34(2), 3-
32.; Adeney, K & Wyatt, A (2004). "Democracy in South Asia: Getting
Beyond the Structure-Agency Dichotomy," Political Studies, 52 (1): 1-
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
political scientists have referred to them as the "structure-
agency dichotomy" (Adeney & Wyatt, 2004, p.l). According to
the structuralists, a regime change relies on factors such as
"class, sector and world-systematic political economy."4
Human actions are either caused or highly influenced by their
social and economic positions. Modernisation theory is an
integral part of the structuralist argument for it embraces the
idea that choices made by human entities are influenced or
shaped by their socio-economic positions. In the trailblazing
work of Moore, he first pinpointed that bourgeois revolutions
culminate the Western form of democracy.5 The middle class
in Britain and France - empowered by their new economic
fortunes - began to demand political freedom from the ruling
landed upper class.6 What ensued was a bourgeois revolt
against the old establishments. Likewise, Lipset argues that
there is a relationship between the degree of economic
development and the chance to sustain a democracy.7 A
country with a lower level of wealth distribution, less
widespread education and greater degree of class struggle can
breed radicalism because these factors precipitate discontent.
Several other scholars have also identified linkage between
capitalist development and a chance to sustain democracy.
Other factors such as institutional structures, past conflicts
or colonialism are considered instrumental in having long-
term   impacts   on   subsequent   political   developments.8   As
4 Mahoney, J & Snyder, R (1999). "Rethinking Agency and Structure
in the Study of Regime Change," Studies in Comparative International
Development, 34(2), p. 3.
5 Moore, B., Jr. (1966). Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy:
Lord and Peasant in the Making ofthe Modern World. Boston: Beacon
Press, p. xxi.
6 Ibid.
7 Lipset, S. M. (1998). Democracy in Asia and Africa. Washington DC:
Congressional Quarterly, p. 31.
8 Rueschemeyer, D., Stephens, E. H. & Stephens, J. D. (1992).
Capitalist Development and Democracy. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, p. 23.
 Democracy from Above
Luebbert points out, " stable interwar regime was formed
that lacked mass support, each regime was based on a
distinctive social or class aUiance, and each regime had clear
material winners and losers" (Luebbert, 1991, p. 306).
Furthermore, the dependency theory put forth by O'Donnell
has been used to explain why some Latin American countries
that had undergone late, but nonetheless, rapid economic
growth opted for an authoritarian regime. In the heart of his
argument, O'DonneU posits that economic dependence tends
to "create pressures towards authoritarian rule" (see
Rueschemeyer, Stephens & Stephens, 1992, p. 22). Literature
on structuralist approaches has dominated the study of
regime change in the past few decades.9
Voluntarist approaches have emerged as a competing school
of thought that seeks to credit human behavior as key to
regime transformation. Varying regime outcomes are a result
of agential motivations and interest calculations, rather than
their socio-economic roles. The voluntarist arguments place
an importance on interests of political actors that are not
necessarily rested on social or economic grounds. In The
Breakdown of Democratic Regimes (Stepan & Linz, 1978),
Stepan and Linz attribute the overthrow of President Joao
Goulart by the military to Goulart's style of leadership,
political acts and strategies and personality.!0 While
acknowledging structural factors, such as macro-economic
environment, in particular the withdrawal looming economic
crisis, Stefan concludes that they are not sufficient to cause a
regime collapse where a political leader can play a "special
9 Refer to works by Moore, B., Jr. (1966). Social Origins of
Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making ofthe
Modem World. Boston: Beacon Press; O'Donnell, G (1973).
Modernisation and Bureaucratic-Authoritarianism: Studies in South
American Politics. Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, Politics
of Modernisation Series No. 9; Luebbert, G. (1991). Liberals,
Fascism, or Social Democracy: Social Classes and the Political Origins
of Regimes in Interwar Europe. New York: Oxford University Press.
i° Stepan, A & Linz, J (eds.). (1978/ The Breakdown of Democratic
Regimes. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, p. 133.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
role in bringing the regime to a final breakdown point."n
Likewise, Almond, Flanagan and Mundt discuss in their book
Crisis, Choice and Change: Historical Studies of Political
Development (Almond, Flanagan & Mundt, 1973) that political
actors do have room to maneuver, or "a range of freedom of
choice" (see Mahoney & Snyder, 1999, p. 16), when it comes to
the final decision making. In sum, voluntarist theorists
believe that structures are "external constraints, which actors
may or may not encounter as they pursue their goals."!2
What reaUy distinguishes the structuralist from the
voluntarist arguments is the level of analysis. Structuralism
gives way to macro-level analysis, which encompasses factors
such as world system, economic development, domestic-
structural and institutional. 13 To be sure, structuralists
believe that a country's level of economic development, its
strategic position in the international arena, "objective social
groups defined by their socio-economic positions" (Mahoney &
Snyder, 1999, p.9), political parties and military or judicial
institutions contribute to a change in regime. On the other
hand, voluntarists focus on micro-level elements, such as
political leadership and subjective social groups, as sufficient
explanations for a regime change. Critics of the structuralist
approach argue that the theory underestimates the role of
human agency during a change of regime. Although human
actions are shaped by their socio-economic positions, the
theory "overlooks the possibility that actors may have
margins of maneuverability during periods of regime change"
(Mahoney & Snyder, p. 5). Moreover, structuralism is seen to
be "overly deterministic" (Adeney & Wyatt, 2004, p.5).
Democracy has triumphed in some developing countries that
did not possess the social and economic prerequisites often
referred to when describing Western democracies.
11 Ibid., p. 132.
12 Mahoney, J & Snyder, R (1999). "Rethinking agency and structure
in the study of regime change," Studies in Comparative International
Development, 34(2), p. 5.
is Ibid., p. 9.
 Democracy from Above
Bhutan offers another unique perspective on regime
transformation. It is argued that, in the case of the recent
regime transformation in Bhutan, the structuralist argument
cannot offer stand-alone explanations to the political change.
The voluntarist school of though indeed provides better
explanations to what is taking place in the Bhutanese
political system. The liberalisation reforms carried out by
absolute monarchs have, on the one hand, created
unprecedented growth in Bhutan's economy in recent years,
yet on the other, it has neither created critical mass of the
middle class nor developed political consciousness among the
mass to push for political change. King Wangchuck single-
handedly instigated the political regime change in the country
as part of continuously unfolding political liberalisation
Modernisation, Bhutanese style
The recent transition from absolutism to a multi-party system
can only be appreciated within the wider context of changing
social and economic landscape within the Bhutanese society.
It is argued that the gradual and structural transformations
in the Bhutanese societies have brought important changes to
the country's socio-economic development, but have not
developed key components that would have enticed a change
in regime. In other words, peaceful transformation of the
Bhutanese society has not given rise to popular support for a
regime change. Unlike many other cases in the study of
regime collapses throughout Latin America and Asia, the
King's decision to transform the country' governance is not
reactionary to a political or economic calamity. Rather, it is a
carefuUy planned and calculated decision. Four notable
structural factors are worth mentioning in the foUowing
paragraphs to demonstrate the relatively unconventional
pattern of Bhutanese modernisation: 1) astounding economic
advancement with minimal industrialisation, 2) a growing
wealth disparities with a low level of class struggle, 3) a
relatively high ratio of uneducated citizenry and 4) a still
relatively isolated country with minimal outside interference.
To be sure, these factors do not always bring about instability
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
but they have brought some societies to a crisis point where
popular discontent threatens an existing regime. The uneven
and imbalanced development in Bhutan, ironically, has
produced peace and stability in the country.
Economic advancement with minimal industrialisation
Bhutan has entered an extended period of gradual
modernisation without actuaUy undergoing a process of
industrialisation. This has two major implications: 1) neither
a working class nor middle class have developed in mass and
2) the existing class structure in the society remains relatively
unchanged. The middle class is seen as a driver of the
Figure 1: Key indicators determining a degree of
industrialisation (1980-2007)
Population employed in
Agricultural contribution
to GDP
contribution to GDP
Primary energy
(quadrillion Btu)
Sources: Planning Commission of Bhutan, World Bank, UNDP, IEA
democratisation process because middle class actors play key
roles in revolutionary movements. Moore's analysis of Britain
and France's transition to democracy places great emphasis
on the role of the educated and weU-to-do middle class, who
demanded political concessions from the ruling elites.
Without a strong or large middle class, there are fewer
incentives to create redistributions from the elites to
citizens. 15 Likewise, an organised or large working class can
14 Primary energy includes petroleum, dry natural gas and coal, and
net hydroelectric, solar, geothermal, wind, and wood and waste
electricity. Also includes net electricity imports.
15 Acemoglu,   D   &   Robinson,   J.   A.   (2005).   Economic  Origins  of
 Democracy from Above
pose a threat to an established order, as evidence in
Luebbert's analyses on the origins of liberalism, fascism and
social democracy in interwar Europe.
Bhutan was a late developer, but unlike many of its Asian
counterparts, it was not trying to catch up with the West.
King Jigme Singye Wangchuck was careful to modernise the
state without "Westernising" it - ensuring that the
preservation of their rich cultural heritage was regarded as
utmost important. Bhutan's social and economic
transformations have been focused primarily on the basic
needs of the citizens, such as access to water, sanitation and
electricity, rather than to place high emphasis on developing
industries per se. As a result, Bhutan has not experienced
modern industrialisation in the sense of creating a strong
manufacturing base. From 1980 to 2001, the size of the
manufacturing sector remains largely unchanged (see Figure
1). Six out of eight Bhutanese stiU earn their living in the
countryside, despite the declining importance of the primary
sector to the nations' overall gross domestic product (GDP).
Another major indicator for a degree of a country's
industrialisation is the energy consumption level among the
populace. Bhutan is one of the lowest energy consumers in
the world, ranking 162nd among its peers, with most of its
people relying on traditional firewood for cooking and heating.
Figure 2: Key Development Indicators in Bhutan, 1985-2005
GDP per capita, PPP ($)
Life expectancy (years)
Roads paved
Telephone per 100
Internet users per 100
Adults with no
Press, p. 40.
and   Democracy.    Cambridge:    Cambridge   University
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Schooling (over the
age of 25)
Doctors per 10,000
Urban population % **
Sources:   World   Development   Indicators,    UNESCO,    UNDP,    WHO,
National   Statistical   Bureau   of Bhutan,   Planning   Commission   of
* UNESCO estimates
** For 1990 and 1995, the figures are averages calculated by the
Bhutan managed to quadruple its GDP in the past twenty-
years by doing practically one thing: building the Chukha
Hydroelectricity power plant. In other words, the average
annual GDP growth rate of almost 7% since 1985 has been
exclusively propeUed by the commissioning and the
construction of the hydro power plant.16 The building of the
power plant, temporarily, spurred employment in the energy-
related industries (i.e. cement and ferro aUoys).iy However, by
and large, energy is not a job-creating sector, which is
reflected in the still high employment rate in the agricultural
sector of the economy. In addition, nearly 90% of firms in
Bhutan are micro enterprises or very small family-run
businesses, recording revenue of under $22,000 per year, i8
The relatively underdeveloped industrial sector in Bhutan
results in a weak private sector, a small middle class as well
as the working class. The entire economy is wholly dependent
on directives from the government (and the King) to introduce
any social and economic changes. In fact, neither the middle
class nor the working has any incentives to challenge the
public order because their economic weU-being is almost
entirely dependent upon the public sector. The government
planned and orchestrated the construction of the hydropower
16 UNDP (2007). Macroeconomics of Poverty Reduction: The Case
Study of Bhutan, p. 182. Retrieved from cs for Bhutan.pdf
17 Ibid.
is Ibid., p. 209.
 Democracy from Above
plant - the single, major source for the development of
industries. Incentives and projected benefits are crucial in the
process of democratic consolidation because without them,
changes to the established order are neither wanted nor
Growing wealth disparities in relative peace
Policies of gradual modernisation and sustainable
development have yielded an interesting contrast within the
Bhutanese society: rising inequality with minimal societal
tension. How could this happen? There are several
explanations to this unusual development. It is because,
historically, Bhutan was a nation of subsistence farmers and
landowners. Consequently, the Bhutanese do not suffer from
starvation; such is the case in other South Asian countries,
for everyone is entitled to a minimum amount of agricultural
land, given freely by the state, on which to grow food for
oneself. The state also gives away enough timber for everyone
to build modest houses. 19 As a result, while one-third of the
population can be categorised as "poor",20 the country as a
whole does enjoy a high level of human development.2! This is
an important point, because it means that the majority of the
population's basic needs are met, although they are poor in
terms of their wealth accumulation. Coupled with the fact
that the poor do have land and accommodation, it would be
much less plausible for them to have a grudge against the
state or to feel drawn to any populist ideas of land or wealth
redistribution. Indeed, the growing rural-urban inequality is
not a result of the state's neglect, but rather the harsh
geographical reality that has made efforts to equalise socioeconomic development much more challenging.
19 Ibid., p. 39.
20 UNDP (2007). Poverty Analysis Report 2007, p. 5. Retrieved from 2007.pdf.
21 Based on the UNDP Human Development Indicators (HDI) that
measure improvement in life's expectancy, access to basic services,
enrollment in primary schools, etc.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
The government's set of policies are heavily geared towards
benefiting the poor. First of all, the state relies heavily on
non-tax revenue, primarily from the sales of hydroelectricity.
Direct taxes, at the beginning of the fiscal reforms in the
1980s, were virtuaUy non-existent and have been kept
minimal to this day.22 This implies that as the country grows
economicaUy, the elites wiU not be burdened with increased
taxes - a situation that makes consolidating democracy more
attractive and cost-efficient.23 The share of non-tax revenue
also stands to increase in the coming years, allowing the
government more independence in its expenditure. Normally
in the cases of many authoritarian regimes, when the
government's revenue comes from sales of natural resources,
such as oil and gas, it severely decreases the level of
government's accountability to its own people. However, in
the case of Bhutan, the situation is quite the contrary: over
one-quarter of the total government's budget is earmarked for
heath and educational programs. More importantly, due to
the policy of fiscal decentralisation, government officials at
the local level are permitted to spend twenty-five percent of
their budgets on local needs, bypassing approval from the
national level.24 The high level of government's support for
rural development is not only unwavering, but increasing on
a yearly basis. In sum, the self-sufficient and land-owning
nature of most Bhutanese, along with the government's heavy
focus on helping the poor, have smoothened out the otherwise
potentiaUy divisive impacts of growing inequality among the
various classes in society.
A high level of adult illiteracy
Five in eight adults in Bhutan have had no schooling (see
22 Budget Summary 2007-2008.
23 Acemoglu, D & Robinson, J. A. (2005). Economic Origins of
Dictatorship and Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, p. 36.
24 UNDP (2007). Macroeconomics of Poverty Reduction: The Case
Study of Bhutan, p. 4. Retrieved from cs for Bhutan.pdf
 Democracy from Above
Figure 2) - an iUiteracy rate so high it bogs down many other
developmental efforts.25 Many scholars have suggested that
the higher the level of education, the greater the chances for
democracy. Researchers have found that the more educated
the citizens, the more likely they are "to believe in democratic
values and supported democratic practices."26 During the
run-up to the parliamentary elections, government officials
and volunteers were sent out into the countryside to educate
the public about the meaning of democracy and civic
governance. Two mock elections and countless training
sessions were completed to ensure that the election would go
smoothly for a country whose majority of the adult population
cannot read or write. Right after the election, a group of 400
people from three towns voiced their concerns during the
royal audience that democratic transition may have been
introduced too early as "illiterate villagers moved from one
party to the other and were swayed by whatever said to them"
(Kuensel Online, 2008) and that too few people reaUy
understood the meaning of democracy.27
In sum, whUe Bhutan has undergone through drastic, albeit
gradual, structural transformation in its economy through
decades of modernisation, the country lacks key components
that would have led to a popular demand for a regime change.
The imbalances in the country's socio-economic development
only substantiaUy increased the level of income per capita,
25 In comparison to other developing nations in Asia, such
development represents an uncommon occurrence. In comparison to
other Asian countries with a similar level of income, Bhutan has a
much lower rate of literacy and level of urbanisation. See figures for
Sri Lanka, Thailand, Philippines, and Maldives on the World
Development Indicators (WDI). For lower income countries in the
same region, see Nepal and Bangladesh.
26 Smith, G. H. (1948). "Liberalism and Level of Information," Journal
of Educational Psychology, 39: 65-82.
27 People appeal to His Majesty. (2008, April 2). Kuensel Online.
Retrieved from
http: / /www.kuenselonline. com/modules. php?name=News&file=artic
le&sid= 10124.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
yet, other development figures, be it literacy rate, level of
urbanisation, and infrastructure, have not made the same
speed of progress.28 International development agencies have
also acknowledged this rather unusual development that, due
to the slow rate of health and educational attainment that is
progressing over the years, it is very likely that the increase in
the level of human development was a result of an income
rise only.29 As a result of these uneven developments, the
Bhutanese society lacks a sizable middle class (and working
class), educated citizenry, intra-group tension that would
have precipitated regime discontent among the public.
Modernisation theory, consequently, cannot explain the
regime change to democracy in Bhutan.
An isolated state, with minimal external interference
The long, extended period of isolation imposed by the early
Kings may have served Bhutan weU, but it has also kept its
neighbors at bay. Having escaped Britain's colonial
aggression in South Asia and subsequently secured India's
recognition of its independence, Bhutan went into isolation
and maintained its traditional monarchical rule. Bhutan had
reasons to feel vulnerable as it was the only surviving
Mahayana Buddhist kingdom, after Sikkim was absorbed by
India to the south and Tibet was annexed by China to the
north. The monarchy played an immensely important role in
consolidating fragmented Himalayan groups and exemplifying
a unifying force for the development of the Bhutanese state.
The country's historians point out that Bhutan would have
fallen prey to the Indian dominance had it not been because
of the  monarchical institution.30  Indeed,  the  only way for
28 Over 20 years, GNI increased by six fold, while literacy rate
increased two and a half times, and percentage of urban population
increased two times.
29 UNDP (2007). Macroeconomics of Poverty Reduction: The Case
Study of Bhutan, p. 38. Retrieved from cs for Bhutan.pdf
so Rose, L. E. (1977). The Politics of Bhutan. Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, p. 107.
 Democracy from Above
Bhutan to maintain its sovereignty was for the country to
enter an extended period of isolation to aUow time for the
monarchy to establish itself as the only legitimate institution.
The backwardness of the nation made it much easier for the
monarchs to consolidate their power and become the absolute
ruler of the people, whose political consciousness was not yet
Although Bhutan slowly came out of self-imposed isolation in
the 1980s, no outside powers were exerting pressure for
democracy in Bhutan in the lead-up to last week's election.
Bhutan has long remained closed to outsiders,
maintaining diplomatic relations with very few countries
(mostly in Asia). Huntington argues that democratisation in a
country may be influenced by "the actions of governments
and institutions external to that country."31 Successful
demonstrations in one country can encourage
demonstrations elsewhere since they create a contagion
effect.32 India is Bhutan's closest and longest aUy, whose
relationships extends from economic to military. Through
decades of India's assistance to Bhutan, political differences
between the two nations were never given significance.33 India
is also the only stable democracy in Bhutan's immediate
vicinity. Yet, due to the Indo-Bhutan Treaty of 1949, India
pledged non-interference in Bhutan's domestic affairs.34
Bhutan had sought no relationship with its northern
neighbor, China, for security concern after Tibet was annexed
in   1951.   Memberships at international organisations were
3i Huntington, S. P. (1991). The Third wave: Democratisation in the
Late Twentieth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, p.
32 Ibid.
33 Galay, K (2004). "International Politics of Bhutan," Journal of
Bhutan Studies, 10: 90-108. Retrieved from
http: / / detail.php?pubid=89.
34 Choden, T (2003). "Indo-Bhutan International Relations: Recent
Trends." Paper presented at the Regional Conference on
Comprehensive Security in South Asia. Kathmandu: Institute for
Foreign Affairs, p. 114.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
gradually sought after in the early 1970s, with most
organisations present in Bhutan are on humanitarian
grounds and focus mostly on development work. Being seen
as a peaceful, traditional society by most outsiders has
helped the monarch escape scrutiny for its authoritarian
Some observers of Bhutanese politics have tried to develop a
connection between the social, anti-monarchist unrest in
Nepal to the stepping down of the Bhutanese monarchy. The
domestic politics in Nepal may have raised concerns about
the "future" status of the monarchy amongst the ruling
monarchs, but it, in no way, directly puts pressure on the
King to abolish absolute monarchy. Unlike King Gyanendra of
Nepal, who faced over a decade of demonstrations and
popular uprisings before he finaUy announced the demise of
the country's monarchy, King Wangchuck of Bhutan is widely
popular and highly revered among the public. The extremely
high level of power and legitimacy that the Bhutanese
monarch upholds is unmatched by most leaders in the world,
democraticaUy and undemocraticaUy elected. Many
Bhutanese widely believe that their Kings would take better
care of them than any other politicians.35 The general public
took the news of his abdication with grief, sadness, and fear
to what the future might hold for them without the King.36
Better yet, the elites were completely caught off guard and
repeatedly pleaded to the King to reconsider his decision.
Then they were "asked" by the King to reorganise themselves
as parties in preparation for the upcoming parliamentary
35 Gier, N (2008). "Two Himalayan Kingdoms Give up their Kings,"
New West Wire, Retrieved from himalayan kingdoms gi
ve up their kings/
36 Chiramal, J. M. (2008). "Dragon Kingdom's Date with Democracy,"
Kuensel Online. Retrieved from
http: / /www.kuenselonline. com/modules. php?name=News&file=artic
le&sid= 10230.
37 Sinpeng, A. (2008). "Bhutan: The world's Youngest Democracy,"
 Democracy from Above
Democracy: A long envisioned goal
The political transformation in Bhutan was a clear case of
voluntarism - a situation whereby the leader, in this case the
King, decided to give up his power irrespective of his social,
economic or political position. In fact the country was stable
and prospering, facing no immediate political threat both
from the domestic and the international realm. While many
dictators and military juntas around the world - not to
mention the royal family of neighbouring Nepal - are using
both coercions and mUitary might to hang on to power, His
Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck concluded that his throne
had come to an end and Bhutan must transition to
democracy. When he announced his abdication in 2006, he
clarified that democracy was not necessarily Bhutan's goal,
but a part of good governance and a key piUar of the King's
ultimate objective: to achieve Gross National Happiness
(GNH). Innovated by the King himself, the GNH became the
country's benchmark to development - promoting a more
balanced and equitable development that preserves Bhutan's
rich, cultural heritage. In order for the country to achieve
"coUective happiness", its citizen must become empowered, in
the King's view.
The change of regime was therefore not reactionary to any
social, economic or political calamities, but a rather long-
intended, carefuUy carved out plan. As Chiramal suggests,
"the transition to democracy was no overnight phenomenon,
but an ongoing process."38 King Wangchuck had envisioned,
in the early 1980s, that eventuaUy Bhutan would need to
move away from an absolute monarchy.39 His Majesty says
The Globalist. Retrieved from
http:/ /www.
38 Chiramal, J. M. (2008). "Dragon Kingdom's Date with Democracy,"
Kuensel Online. Retrieved from
http: / /www.kuenselonline. com/modules. php?name=News&file=artic
le&sid= 10230
39 Part of King Wangchuck's address to the people of Haa illuminates
his thinking: "On the introduction of a parliamentary democracy His
Majesty explained that the Constitution was being established for
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
"I do not believe that the system of absolute monarchy,
wholly dependent on one individual, is a good system for
the people in the long-run. Eventually, no matter how
carefully royal children are prepared for their role, the
country is bound to face misfortune of inheriting a King of
dubious character."40
These words were not a break from the past for the monarchy
- as such conviction was passed on since the foremost King.
The first steps towards democratic transition had, as a result,
been initiated long before the recent election in 2008. For
example, in 1953, the National Assembly (Tshogdu) was
established by the third King despite the public's reluctance.
"Although the people said they were not ready for such a
forum, the King insisted on the establishment of the National
Assembly to discuss issues of national interest, promote
public welfare and develop political consciousness among the
people so that they could play a greater role in the decision
making process and running ofthe country."41
Successive Kings follow in the path to gradually liberalise the
country's    system    of   governance    through    a    series    of
the future well being of the country and the people. His Majesty said
that Monarchy is not the best form of government for Bhutan as it
has many flaws. His Majesty pointed out that, in times to come, if
the people were fortunate the heir to the Throne would be a
dedicated and capable person. On the other hand the heir could be a
person of mediocre ability or even an incapable person. That would
create problems for a small country like Bhutan." See "The
Constitution: Are We Ready?" (2005, November 5). Kuensel Online.
Retrieved from
http: / /www.kuenselonline. com/modules. php?name=News&file=artic
40 UNDP (2007). Macroeconomics of Poverty Reduction: The Case
Study of Bhutan, p. 42. Retrieved from cs for Bhutan.pdf
4i About the National Assembly of Bhutan, (n.d.). Retrieved May 30,
2008 from
 Democracy from Above
decentralisation measures. In 1981, King Wangchuck further
decentralised the country's administration by dividing the
country into twenty districts (dzongkhags) and set up the
District Development Committees to involve local citizens in
consultations on the development of their own districts.42 The
decentralised system of governance is most pronounced at
the local level where a group of villagers form a constituency
called "gewog" and is administered by "gup" who is elected by
the people.43 At the village level gups can settle petty
disputes. The most ambitious change towards the
development of decentralisation came in 1998 when the King
devolved his executive powers to the Council of Ministers who
is elected by Member ofthe Parliament (Chimis). This means
that, for the first time, the government would be elected
directly by the Parliament. The king even instigated more
power to the Parliament by reinstating the vote of confidence
in the monarchy. With the decentralised system of
governance in place, local people would be able to decide the
faith ofthe monarchy.44
The monarchy understands the peril of a tyranny and does
not want to maintain the single-ruler system, despite its
astounding success in consolidating a once fragmented
nation and restoring peace and prosperity to the people. That
is why King Wangchuck gave up his throne at the height of
his power, while there is peace and prosperity within the
country. In essence, King Wangchuck's decision to transition
to democracy is a "pre-emptive" one, under the assumption
that such regime change is inevitable in the future and it is
better to make a peaceful and orderly transformation rather
than a violent one.   Once  the  decision has been made to
42 Bhutan adopted the First Five-Year Plan from India, which
provided the bulk of the assistance (both advisory and financial) and
continues to be the major donor of the Kingdom.
43 Political System. (n.d.) Retrieved May 3, 2008 from
http: / / politicalsystem.php
44 UNDP (2002). Decentralisation: Bringing People Closer to the
People. UNDP Program in Bhutan, Discussion Paper. Retrieved from
http: / /
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
transition to parliamentary democracy, the monarchy traveled
extensively for two years throughout the country to discuss
the drafting of the constitution with various professionals,
local leaders and viUagers.45 It was the King's vision to ensure
that the country's first modern constitution would be
representative of the people.46
What is most interesting about the political transformation of
Bhutan is that it represents a true "royal directive" by the
monarchy, rather than a proposed change by the elites or the
public. For a country with a large share of uneducated and
politically docile population, one would suspect the elites to
play a greater role in propeUing political change. In reality,
however, the elites have simply objected to the monarch's
wish to devolve his power to them.47 The Bhutanese people, in
general, are conservative in nature and have deep reverence
45 Australia -Bhutan Friendship Association, (n.d.). Bhutan Becomes
the World's Youngest Democracy. Retrieved April 2, 2008 from
http: / /
4e A speech from the 2005 Nation Address: "During 2006-2007, the
Election Commission will educate our people in the process of
parliamentary democracy and electoral practice sessions will be
conducted in all the 20 dzongkhags. After 26 years of the process of
decentralisation and devolution of powers to the people, I have every
confidence that our people will be able to choose the best political
party that can provide good governance and serve the interest of the
nation. I would like our people to know that the first national
election to elect a government under a system of parliamentary
democracy will take place in 2008."
47 A man who observed the king's audience spoke: "On the eve of the
centenary of our Monarchy, it is too painful to even conceive of the
idea of the Druk Gyalpo (the King) relinquishing the Throne."
Another woman also said, "I never expected to see the day when our
own children would discuss such outrageous issues in His Majesty's
presence. How can Bhutanese people talk about a King stepping
down? Or impeaching the Druk Gyalpo? Or the other personal
matters of the royal family?" Refer to the full text: "The Constitution:
Are We Ready?" (2005, November 5). Kuensel Online. Retrieved from
http: / /www.kuenselonline. com/modules. php?name=News&file=artic
 Democracy from Above
towards the King and would prefer the paternalistic style of
governance under the directions of the monarchy. It is a
common occurrence throughout Bhutanese political history
that the people would make pleas and requests for
reconsideration to the monarchy every time the King ordered
any devolution of power from himself to either organs of
governments or to the local level of administration.48
Future implications
The impact of the recent multi-party election may not be
dramatic at first, but it will have far reaching consequences to
the democratic development of the entire nation. One thing
for certain is that the monarchy is here to stay. The
monarchy may have given up rule on paper, but its power
remains in force. The time for Bhutan's political transition
was deliberately chosen; there is stability and peace in the
country, and the royal family has the people's trust. It came
as no surprise that both the DPT and the People's Democratic
Party (PDP) shared a strikingly similar political platform - a
continuation of the monarch's policies - though the latter
proposed for a faster change of pace. The first democratic
election of Bhutan was not contested, for it lacked real
alternatives to the existing discourse. As the new leadership
takes its place, King Wangchuck's system of governance,
public policy, and official discourse wtil carry on. The people
of Bhutan wiU continue to regard their King as the Guardian
of the nation, who "will ensure stabtiity and protect the long-
term interests ofthe people."49
Nevertheless,   there   remain   significant   chaUenges   for   the
48 "The constitution: Are We Ready?" (2005, November 5). Kuensel
Online. Retrieved from
http: / /www.kuenselonline. com/modules. php?name=News&file=artic
49 Looking for a team. (2008, February 14). Kuensel Online. Retrieved
http: / /www.kuenselonline. com/modules. php?name=News&file=artic
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
future of democracy in Bhutan. Despite over two decades of
gradual political liberalisation in preparation for the
introduction of the new system, there is no telling that
democracy would be sustainable. First of aU, there seems to
be no real opposition force in the political scene. At least for
now, the monarchists will be the only political group running
the show. Royalist bureaucrats and civil servants wiU
continue to occupy important positions in the government.
The heavy reliance on the King's policy preference may
impede the development of political parties in Bhutan. In
essence, if aU parties wish to foUow the King's path, then
there will be tittle differentiation in policies or platforms of
each party. In such case, party politics may be of marginal
utility or significance to Bhutan's political system. Moreover,
the transition to democracy in Bhutan after centuries of
monarchical rule wiU certainly give rise to "royalists" or
"monarchists" who wiU continue to be prominent on the
political scene for years to come. Only time can tell whether
this is a curse or a blessing. To put it in comparative
perspective, that is what occurred in Thailand, where
royalists prompted a coup in 2006, more than 70 years after
the end of monarchy's rule, to topple a democratically elected
Secondly, civil liberties in Bhutan remain limited despite
recent signs of improvement. The Freedom House has given
the country 3.72 scores for civil liberty (0=weakest;
7=highest), with very low points on freedom of association
and protection of ethnic minorities.50 The main reason why
Bhutan scores low in this category is due to the relatively new
concept of civic freedom. After more than a century of
monarchic rule, such ideas have only been introduced
recently in the form of political decentralisation and social
liberalisation. The King himself began to educate the
Bhutanese people of their rights and duties as citizens5! g^
50 Freedom   House.   (2007/   Freedom Around  the   World:  Bhutan.
Retrieved from http: / /
51 Freedom House.   (2007).   Countries in Crossroads: Bhutan.  Civil
Liberties. Retrieved from
 Democracy from Above
civic consciousness is just beginning to be formed. The 34-
Article Constitution also lays grounds for the development of
civil society, to ensure that citizens have the right to freedom
of expression. However, foreign observers, such as Freedom
House, argue that the Bhutan Information, Communications
and Media Act and National Security Act have limited the free
flow of information, the protection of journalists and the
freedom of expression.52 The Editor-in-Chief of Kuensel, the
largest state-run newspaper in Bhutan, acknowledged in
2006 that the role of government in media is "all-pervasive"
and caUs for government subsidies would mean trading off
the media's independence.53 Independent media has only
been given permission to be established in 2006, by the King
himself, and already some occasional criticisms towards the
government have begun to emerge through its website. On
recent occasion, Bhutan Observer, an independent
newspaper, criticised the government officials for being
denied accessed to the meeting between prime ministers of
India and Bhutan, citing "...only the state-run media are
allowed. This is not democracy" (Bhutan Observer, 2008).54
Lastly, forces of globalisation wiU pose both an immediate and
http: / / www, freedomhouse .org/ template. cfm?page= 140&edition= 8&c
crcountry= 150&section=86&ccrpage= 37.
52 Freedom House. (2007.) Freedom Around the World: Bhutan.
Retrieved from http: / / For full disclosure of
Bhutan's Information, Communications and Media Act, see
T06.pdf. The 1992 National Security Act stipulates that any criticism
of the king or Bhutan's political system is prohibited. Such
stipulation, however, is not uncommon among constitutional
monarchies in today's world. For full disclosure of the document,
follow the link below.
http: //www. bt/ images/acts/ National%20Security%20Act.p
53 Dorji, K (2006). "Media in Bhutan: Now and Then," Journal of
Bhutan Studies, 14, p. 8.
54 Media rights. (2008, May 23). The Bhutan Observer. Retrieved from
http: / /www, bhutanobserver. bt / 2008 / editorial/ 05 / media-
rights, html.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
long-term threat to the identity and the cultural heritage of
Bhutan. Past success of the absolute monarchy and the
recent first-ever election rests upon the fact that Bhutan is an
insular, conservative kingdom with strong roots to its
traditions and little access to the outside world. To preserve
its culture, the King was careful to modernise Bhutan without
westernising it. Recognising that Bhutan cannot remain
isolated forever, the King began to open the country up slowly
to the outside world. In 1999, television was introduced for
the first time in the country. The public reaction was mixed:
some say that violence seen on television and movies has led
to increased violence and fighting among youths - a
phenomenon which contradicts the deeply cherished values of
peace and non-violence among the Bhutanese.55 In response
to public concerns the potential danger of uncensored
television, the Association of Private Cable Operators imposed
restrictions to allow only thirty channels with "a complete ban
of twelve music and other channels that provided
'controversial' content."56 Moreover, a 1989 and its
subsequent royal decrees require that all wear the national
dress while in public during daylight hours. In 2004, Bhutan
became the first country in the world to ban the sale and use
of tobacco. Only the test of time can tell whether or not
Bhutan can withstand the test of globalisation and its impact
on its culture.
The transition to democracy in Bhutan will serve as a unique
example to the study of regime change for years to come.
Since the 1970s, few cases in the sphere of regime study offer
a clear-cut voluntarist approach, whereby agential actions are
evidently responsible for the transformation of a country's
political system. Most of the literature on regime change has
55 Lubow, A (2008). The Changing Face of Bhutan. The Smithsonian
Institute. Retrieved from
56 Freedom House (2007). Freedom Around the World: Bhutan.
http: / /www, freedomhouse. org.
 Democracy from Above
focused heavily towards the structuralist argument - leaving
much room for the voluntarist counterpart to make its case.
When observing the country's social and economic
development in the past two decades, it is clear that although
Bhutan has gone through the modernisation process in the
past two decades, the society is not "ripe" for a regime
change. Indeed, the country lacks several major components
that would have made a democratic consolidation attractive
to the public at large. First, the country has not undergone
the conventional industrialisation process based on the
emergence and the acceleration of the industrial or
manufacturing sector. Bhutan has been able to increase its
gross output by relying solely on the commissioning and
construction of its most important natural resources: water.
Secondly, the wealth that is being created through the sales
of hydroelectricity has over the years increased the income
gap among the populace, but has not, surprisingly, resulted
in any social unrest or tension. That is because the
government has focused its efforts almost exclusively on
providing for the poor - guaranteeing a sufficient piece of
land, accommodation, free healthcare and subsidies for
farming activities. Better yet, the government is not forced to
raise taxes to finance their expenditure on rural development
because its major source of earning comes directly from the
sales of hydroelectricity. The rntra-group inequality has
neither bred class struggle nor provided the public an
impetus to dissent the monarchical regime. Thirdly, the
overwhelmingly high share of uneducated adults in Bhutan
does not give strong basis for the development of political
consciousness, civic responsibilities or an appreciation for
democracy. Lastly, Bhutan experiences minimal interference
from its more powerful neighbors, such as India or China.
The lack of external influence means that the existing regime
could operate without pressure to change from abroad.
It was the monarchy who has brought about democracy in
Bhutan voluntarily, unpressured by any social or economic
tensions. In fact, it was at the height of the King's power, with
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
peace, stability and prosperity within the country that he
decided to abdicate from power to give way to democracy. The
very nature of his voluntary act was best exemplified by a
series of petitions, gatherings, and demonstrations from both
the public and the elites who pleaded repeatedly for the
monarch to reconsider his decision. Some of the concerned
citizens voiced their suspicions over the question of whether
or not Bhutan was indeed "ready" for democracy. However,
King Wangchuck reassured his people that democracy would
bring more good than harm to the entire nation. The high
level of trust that the King received from his people was
sufficient to mobilise the country towards democracy. The
exceptionally high voter turnout of the country's first-ever
election is a testament to the power and legitimacy that the
King has to his subjects.
The case study of Bhutan can, in addition, enrich the
theoretical framework of the study of regime transformation.
Several political scientists have pointed out that the
voluntarist school of thought is a more pertinent explanation
for the regime change by way of revolution.57 In no case where
there is a transition to democracy caused mainly by agential
action represents "an evolution" of regime transformation.
That is mostly because a gradual political liberalisation from
an authoritarian system to a democratic one takes not only
time, but an isolated state where no outside influence can
have a profound effect on the country's political future.
Bhutan offers this unique situation because it lacks in what
Fish terms "external patronage" (Fish, 2001, p. 325) - a
situation when a great power has asserted dominance in
another    country's    affairs   -    that    could   greatly    impact
57 See Stepan, A. & Linz, J. (Eds.). (1978/ The Breakdown of
Democratic Regimes. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press; Di
Palma, G (1990). To Craft Democracies: An Essay on Democratic
Transitions. Berkeley: University of California Press; Fish, S. M.
(2001). "The Inner Asian Anomaly: Mongolia's Democratisation in
Comparative Perspective," Communist and Post-Communist Studies,
34: 323-338.
 Democracy from Above
democratisation in the country.58 The relative level of
isolation, strong culture of political compromise and a high
level of consensus among the people have made it possible for
Bhutan to gradually transition to a democracy.
58 Fish, S. M. (2001). "The Inner Asian Anomaly: Mongolia's
Democratisation in Comparative Perspective," Communist and Post-
Communist Studies, 34: 323-338.


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