NEW DELHI • Bhutan's Prime Minister conceded defeat yesterday after the ruling party was knocked out in the first round of the small Himalayan nation's third-ever election.
Harvard-educated Tshering Tobgay was seeking a second term in the polls, but his party lost out to two rival parties, which will contest a run-off on Oct 18, reported Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Election officials said Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), which won Bhutan's first election when the kingdom transitioned to democracy in 2008, attracted nearly 93,000 votes, narrowly beating Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT).
Bhutanese voters have changed their government in every general election since the first one in 2008, reported news website The Wire.
"I congratulate DNT and DPT and their candidates (on) their outstanding performance," Mr Tobgay posted on Twitter. The 52-year-old mountain-biking enthusiast and his People's Democratic Party (PDP) won power in 2013.
DNT party chief Lotay Tshering said he was surprised by the PDP's poor showing. A urologist, he led his campaign on the theme of narrowing the wealth gap and tackling unemployment.
DPT president Pema Gyamtsho, who was the leader of the opposition in the previous National Assembly, suggested the poor result for the PDP may have been due to the "anti-incumbency factor".
More than 291,000 people cast their votes in last Saturday's polls for a 66 per cent turnout of registered voters, an election official told AFP.
It appeared that a large turnout among the high number of registered postal voters was decisive in the result, reported The Wire.
Postal voters accounted for 30 per cent of the total registered 438,663 voters, compared with just 12.7 per cent in National Assembly elections held in 2013.
The 81.1 per cent turnout among postal voters was much higher than the overall voter turnout.
Bhutan has tried to shield itself from the downsides of modernisation, striving for "gross national happiness" over gross domestic product growth, maintaining a carbon-negative economy and keeping tourist numbers down with a daily fee of US$250 (S$340) per visitor in high season, reported AFP.
The 800,000 inhabitants of Switzerland-size Bhutan got television in 1999, and democracy arrived only in 2008, when its "dragon king" monarchy ceded absolute power.
Corruption, rural poverty, youth unemployment and the prevalence of criminal gangs remain challenges for Bhutan's economy.
During the last election campaign in 2013, India abruptly withdrew subsidies for kerosene and cooking gas imports, in what was seen as an attempt to coerce a change of government.
India is unhappy about China's growing influence in Bhutan.
Last year, India and China became embroiled in a military stand-off over the Doklam plateau in the Himalayas, claimed by both China and Bhutan.
New Delhi does not claim the territory but has a military presence in Bhutan. It stepped in to prevent the Chinese from building a road there, prompting Beijing to accuse it of trespassing on Chinese soil.