Former Bhutan PM Tshering Tobgay’s party wins election

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News Desk

Former prime minister Tshering Tobgay’s party won Bhutan’s election Tuesday, media reported, after polls dominated by economic threats challenging the Himalayan kingdom’s longstanding policy of prioritising “Gross National Happiness” over growth.

Foremost in the minds of many who voted are the struggles facing the Buddhist-majority kingdom’s younger generation, with chronic youth unemployment and a brain drain.

Both parties in the election are committed to a constitutionally enshrined philosophy of a government that measures its success by the “happiness and well-being of the people”.

Tobgay’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won nearly two-thirds of seats in parliament, The Bhutanese newspaper reported, with the 58-year-old conservation advocate expected to become premier for the second time.

Tobgay’s PDP “wins the 2024 National Assembly general elections with 30 seats” while the Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP) took the remaining 17, the paper said, based on preliminary results from each constituency.

There was no immediate confirmation from the Election Commission, which is expected to release final results on Wednesday, according to an official timetable released ahead of the polls.

‘Mass exodus’
Some voters had to trek for days to cast their ballots in the landlocked mountain nation of about 800,000 people, similar in area to Switzerland.

“Job opportunities in Bhutan are scarce and the new government should focus on solving this, so young people don’t leave abroad for greener pastures,” said 22-year-old student Ugyen Tshering, after voting in the chilly mountain air in the capital Thimphu, with Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the background.

Bhutan’s youth unemployment rate stands at 29 percent, according to the World Bank, while economic growth has sputtered along at an average of 1.7 percent over the past five years.

During campaigning, Tobgay sounded the alarm over Bhutan’s “unprecedented economic challenges and mass exodus”.

His party’s manifesto quoted government statistics showing that one in every eight people were “struggling to meet their basic needs for food” and other necessities.

His electoral rival, BTP leader and career civil servant Pema Chewang, 56, also warned the country was losing the “cream of the nation”.

Squeezed between India and China
Young citizens searching for better financial and educational opportunities abroad have left in record numbers since the last elections, with Australia as their top destination.

Around 15,000 Bhutanese were issued visas there in the 12 months before last July, according to a local news report — more than the preceding six years combined and almost two percent of the kingdom’s population.

“I hope for development in rural areas,” Sandhya Pradhan, 25, an architect, said after voting.

She said boosting the education and health sectors was important “to encourage the youth currently in Australia to come back and work in Bhutan”.

Housewife Yang Chen Dema, 65, from the farming village of Khasadrapchu, said challenges in rural areas she wanted to be tackled included a “drinking water shortage and poor road conditions”.

Tobgay was leader of the opposition in Bhutan’s first parliament when it was established in 2008, soon after the start of the reign of the present king.

The former civil servant, who holds a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s in public administration from Harvard, then served as prime minister from 2013 to 2018.

A primary contest in November narrowed the race down to two parties, with both the previous government’s lawmakers and their former opposition knocked out.

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

Tourism, a small share of Bhutan’s economy but a key earner of foreign currency, has yet to recover from the disruptions of the Covid pandemic.

Tobgay has also pledged a huge ramp-up of investment in hydropower, its primary source of energy.

Bhutan lies sandwiched between the globe’s two most populous countries, China and India, who are watching with keen interest as they eye strategic contested border zones.

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