As Bhutan heads to the polls, economic woes take the stage, instead of 'joy'

The idyllic Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan holds general elections on Tuesday, with tough economic challenges calling into question its longstanding policy of prioritizing „gross national happiness” over development.

Both parties contesting the vote are committed to a constitutionally mandated philosophy of a government that measures its success by the „happiness and well-being of the people.”

Some voters are expected to trek for days to cast their ballots in a country with a landscape similar to Switzerland and a sparse population.

Along with chronic youth unemployment and the brain drain of expatriates abroad, the struggles facing the Kingdom's younger generation are foremost on many minds.

„We don't need more new roads or bridges,” said farmer Kinley Wangchuck, 46. „We really need more jobs for young people.”

According to the World Bank, Bhutan's youth unemployment rate is 29%, while economic growth has averaged 1.7% over the past five years.

Since the last election, Australia's top young citizens have made a record of seeking better financial and educational opportunities overseas.

Mass migration

About 15,000 Bhutanese were granted visas there in the 12 months to last July, according to local news reports — more than in the previous six years, and nearly 2% of the kingdom's population.

This issue is at the forefront of both the parties contesting the elections.

Pema Chewang, a career civil servant of the Bhutanese Tendral Party (PDP), said the country was losing the „cream of the nation”.

„If this trend continues, we will face a situation of empty villages and a desolate nation,” the 56-year-old added.

His opponent, former prime minister and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leader Tshering Tobgay, 58, warned of Bhutan's „unprecedented economic challenges and mass exodus”.

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His party's manifesto cited government statistics showing that one in eight people „struggle to meet their basic needs for food” and other necessities.

Tourism, a small part of Bhutan's economy but a major earner of foreign currency, has yet to recover from the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, the government cut the substantial daily fees paid by foreign visitors to ensure the industry remains sustainable and prevent environmental damage.

But the number of foreign tourists in 2023 is only a third of the 3,16,000 who arrived four years ago.

The previous government pursued several projects to diversify the economy, including a special economic zone along the Indian border and plans to raise funds for a cryptocurrency-mining project with a Singapore-based company.

Electrical projects

Both parties have committed to investing in hydropower, its primary source of energy.

The BTP report said the installed hydro capacity is just 10%, PDP promises growth in steel, cement and other support industries, providing much-needed jobs.

Bhutan's mountain valleys and abundant water resources create „ideal conditions” for hydropower development and exports to India, the World Bank said.

Neighboring Nepal signed a lucrative hydropower deal this week to supply 10,000 megawatts over the coming decade to energy-hungry India, which is heavily dependent on coal but is taking some tentative steps to decarbonize.

In 2008, Bhutan held elections for the first time since political reforms established a bicameral parliament upon the inauguration of the current monarch, who remains extremely popular.

Campaigning has always been subdued in the Buddhist-majority nation, with strict rules mandating that election materials be placed only on public notice boards.

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A primary race in November was reduced to two parties, with lawmakers from the previous government and their former opponents both dropping out. The party of ex-prime minister Lode Shering, a doctor known for performing surgeries on weekends as a „de-stressor” from office pressures, won just 13% of the vote.

Bhutan has a population of about 8,00,000 and is located between the two most populous countries, China and India.

Strategic vote

Both neighbors are watching the vote with interest as they eye strategically contested border areas.

A „cooperation agreement” was signed between Bhutan and China in October after talks over the disputed northern border sparked concern in India.

New Delhi has long considered Bhutan a buffer state under its orbit, and until 2007 effectively directed the country's foreign policy.

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