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Bhutan: Lost in Democracy

Today, the citizens of Bhutan elected their first democratic government as their beloved king voluntarily and on his own initiative relinquished absolute power.
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Like many Americans of my generation, I crave national unity and a leader to follow after what seems like a lifetime of political polarization. We're called blindly optimistic, naïve and hopelessly inexperienced.

Perhaps we are. I grew up in Washington DC, where my journalist parents covered numerous campaigns and administrations. I rarely questioned the system we have for selecting our leaders.

Then I went to Bhutan.

Today, the citizens of Bhutan elected their first democratic government as their beloved king voluntarily and on his own initiative relinquished absolute power.

When I heard about Bhutan holding its first general election, I jumped at the chance to cover what I thought would be a good-news story about the world's newest democracy. As a correspondent for Current, most of my stories, it seems, are about conflict and crisis.

But when I got to Bhutan last month to capture the run-up to the elections for Current's "Vanguard" series, the democratic process looked very unlike the presidential races I was used to. The first debate between the presidents of the country's two new political parties produced no sparks. The candidates didn't really disagree on anything. In fact, it wasn't what I would call a debate at all. The party leaders complimented each other instead of sniping, and rather than calling for change, they spoke of preserving the policies of the king.

The country seemed too quiet to be a democracy. People were reluctant to say which candidates they preferred. It wasn't just that they were still grappling to understand their new form of government after a century of unity under a king. They liked the lives they had, guided by a concept invented by His Majesty called Gross National Happiness. And as they looked around at the neighboring "democracies" in Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan they saw corruption, strife, misery and uncertainty. Most countries make the transition to democracy by popular demand and often by force. But the king of Bhutan was handing power to his people, who didn't seem to want it. The king's explanation for establishing a democracy was that it was the best way to protect them from someday, inevitably, getting a bad king. But most of the Bhutanese I talked to said the unity fostered by the monarchy was responsible for their survival as a little nation wedged in the mountains between two giants: China to the north and India to the south. To people in this tiny, intensely Buddhist kingdom of fewer than 700,000 people, democracy means disagreement, and disagreement threatens their culture and everything they hold dear. In covering stories around the world and close to home, I'd never been to a place where I couldn't find a single person who would say anything even slightly negative about his or her leader. And this was not fear of retribution for speaking out against the crown. I realized that the Bhutanese already had -- and were being told to relinquish -- the unity my generation so desperately seeks. Maybe a God-like monarch wouldn't be so bad -- unless we got the wrong one.

Christof Putzel's pod, "Lost in Democracy" will air as part of a Vanguard special report on Wednesday, April 2 at 7pm PST/10PM EST on Current TV. The pod will also be available on

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