Bhutan votes tomorrow as economic strife hits ‘national happiness’

THIMPU: The picturesque Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan holds general elections on Tuesday with serious economic challenges calling into question its longstanding policy of prioritising “Gross National Happiness” over growth. Both parties contesting the vote are committed to a constitutionally enshrined philosophy of a government that measures its success by the “happiness and well-being of the people”.
Some voters are expected to trek for days to cast their ballots in the landlocked and sparsely populated country. Foremost in the minds of many are the struggles facing the kingdom’s younger generation, with chronic youth unemployment and a brain drain of migration abroad, wih Australia the top destination. Around 15,000 Bhutanese were issued visas there in the 12 months to last July, according to a local news report – more than the preceding six years combined, and almost 2% of the kingdom’s population. The issue is front and centre for parties.
Pema Chewang of Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP) said the country was losing the “cream of the nation”. “If this trend continues, we might be confronted with a situation of empty villages and a deserted nation,” the 56-year-old added.
His opponent, former PM and People’s Democratic Party chief Tshering Tobgay sounded the alarm over Bhutan’s “unprecedented economic challenges and mass exodus”. PDP’s manifesto quoted government statistics showing one in every eight people were “struggling to meet basic needs for food” and other necessities.
Tourism, a small share of Bhutan’s economy but a key earner of foreign currency, has yet to recover from the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic. Last year, the government cut the substantial daily fee paid by foreign visitors to ensure the industry remains sustainable. But foreign tourist numbers in 2023 were only around a third of the 316,000 people who visited four years prior.
Both parties have pledged a huge ramp-up of investment in hydropower, its primary source of energy. BTP manifesto said installed hydro capacity was just 10% of potential, with PDP pledging the development of steel, cement and other support industries that would provide much-needed jobs.
Bhutan has around 800,000 people and lies sandwiched between the two most populous countries, China and India, which are watching the vote with interest as they eye strategic contested border zones. afp
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