For Penn Staters, Bhutan’s Elections Hold Special Interest
Our Penn State group happened to visit Bhutan at a really interesting time: The country is in the midst of its national primary elections, in which voters will be choosing, among other elected officials, a prime minister. The current prime minister is well known to many Penn Staters: Jigme Thinley ’76g earned his master’s in public administration from Penn State, and the university has honored him as both an Alumni Fellow and a Distinguished Alumnus.
If you saw the 60 Minutes segment on Bhutan back in 2008, you saw Thinley talking about the country’s program of Gross National Happiness. I haven’t been successful in finding an online video of that 60 Minutes piece, but you can read a transcript here.
Actually, it’s not quite correct to call Thinley the current prime minister. The way it works in Bhutan, when the elections roll around, the current government steps down and an interim government is put in place for about three months. So Thinley is out of office while he seeks reelection.
Thinley isn’t the only Penn State connection to the Bhutanese elections. The guy in charge of the whole process—the country’s chief elections commissioner—is Kunzang Wangdi ’80g, and our group had the pleasure of spending an evening with him early in the trip.
The folks in the Alumni Association’s travel office invited Wangdi to our opening-night reception, and despite the fact that this has to be an incredibly busy time for him, he showed up. He sat in the hotel bar with us for an hour or so, munching on snacks and answering our questions about the elections.
Bhutan is a fascinating study because it’s relatively new to democracy. Starting back in 1907, the country was a monarchy, and there have been just five kings in its history—all part of the Wangchuck family, all called the “dragon kings,” and typically referred to simply as “the first king,” the “second king,” and so on.
As I understand it, it was the third king who, back in the 1950s, started transitioning Bhutan from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one, with the establishment of a National Assembly—akin to a Parliament. His son, the fourth king, formed a royal commission to study democracies around the world and pick the best elements of each. Just four years ago, that same fourth king abdicated the throne in favor of his 29-year-old son, in part to help accelerate the move toward a democracy. (Vanity Fair did an interesting article at the time on the coronation of the fifth king.)
In talking with Wangdi, the elections commissioner, we were struck by how much foresight and selflessness the kings had shown over the decades in realizing that their country would be better served by a democratic government than a monarchy. We also were impressed at how Bhutan had learned from other countries’ mistakes in creating its elections policy. The requirement that the incumbents step down at election time, for example, is based on the idea that you shouldn’t be trying to govern and campaign at the same time. And the government funds the elections in full, leaving no room for political action committees and their influence.
You also don’t see the roadsides in Bhutan littered with campaign billboards and yard signs. Instead, every so often you come across an “Election Advertising Board” like the one shown here.
We loved the evening we spent with Wangdi and were so impressed that he took time to visit with us. As if that weren’t enough, on the last day of the trip we received a package from him—a box of Bhutanese gifts for us. A very nice touch.
As for Jigme Thinley, it obviously would have been cool to meet him as well, and my colleague Deborah Marron ’78, ’86g did some advance legwork starting last winter to see if she could get it arranged. But we were visiting the western part of Bhutan at a time when Thinley was campaigning over in the eastern part of the country—and, after spending a few days bumping along at 12 mph on those narrow Bhutanese roads, I fully understood why the distance made that impossible.
Bhutan’s primary election is just days away now—Friday, May 31—and it will narrow the field of prime minister candidates from four down to two, with the general election to follow in July. It’s safe to say that the Penn Staters on this trip will be keenly interested in the results.
Tina Hay, editor