Bhutan cements democracy with neck-and-neck election race

THIMPHU (AFP) - The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan concludes its second-ever election on Saturday, with the race to form a government too close to call as voters give their verdict on five years of democracy.

The incumbent Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) party is up against the People's Democratic Party (PDP) to lead the "land of the thunder dragon", after two other groups were knocked out in a primary voting round in May.

Remote Bhutan's line of "dragon kings" ceded absolute power five years ago, introducing democracy to an electorate of fewer than 400,000 people.

The royalist DPT stormed the first election by a landslide in 2008 and won this year's primary round with 45 per cent of votes. But recent gains by the PDP have shaken up the contest.

"The general perception is that it could be a neck and neck race, where every vote counts," said an editorial on the national Kuensel newspaper website on Friday, after a 48-hour campaigning blackout began.

The DPT party has won popularity with rural communities - about 70 per cent of the population - for improving their access to roads, mobile phone networks and electricity in the past five years.

But the election process has been stirred up by a recent straining of ties with Bhutan's giant neighbour and longtime ally India, which suddenly cut subsidies earlier this month on cooking gas and kerosene to the kingdom.

The rising fuel prices come as Bhutan has been struggling under a credit crunch and import restrictions, after running out of Indian rupee supplies last year on soaring demand.

"People blame the incumbent government for not addressing the economy which is in a very bad shape, and the subsidy cut - all this seems to be adding to their woes," said political analyst Kencho Wangdi.

He too said the contest was "a very close call".

Casting votes is a huge logistical challenge across the mountainous country, with officials trekking for up to seven days to set up polling stations.

Mr Sherab Zangpo, a spokesman for the Election Commission of Bhutan, said he expected turnout of "more than 60 per cent" on Saturday after a lukewarm showing of 55 per cent in the May vote.

While that round was hampered by heavy monsoon rains, "the weather is favouring us," he said on Friday. "As of now everything is going to plan."

Bhutan is the only country in the world to pursue "Gross National Happiness", a development model that balances spiritual and mental wellbeing with financial growth.

It was the last country in the world to allow television in 1999, and high visitor fees aim to keep out mass tourism to shield the country's natural beauty and Buddhist culture.

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