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Officials in Bhutan count votes in tiny Himalayan nation's second-ever national elections

Hundreds of thousands of people in the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan went to the polls Saturday to elect a government in the country's second parliamentary elections.

Officials began counting the votes after polls closed, and the results were expected to be made public on Sunday, Chief Election Commissioner Kunzang Wangdi said. Nearly 382,000 people were eligible to cast their vote to elect a 47-member National Assembly.

"Preliminary estimates indicate that more than 80 percent of the electorate has voted," Wangdi said.

Primaries held in May had eliminated three of five political parties, leaving Bhutan's ruling Peace and Prosperity Party and the main opposition People's Democratic Party in the fray.

The remote nation of about 738,000 held its first election in 2008 after King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk voluntarily reduced the monarchy's role in running the country.

Prior to Saturday's voting, election authorities had set up 850 polling stations, including in hard-to-reach mountain villages.

Long lines snaked out from polling stations throughout the day, with people coming out in droves to choose their representatives.

Authorities sealed off Bhutan's borders with neighboring India, and the Bhutanese army assisted the country's small police force to ensure that the elections passed peacefully, Wangdi said.

International poll observers from Britain, India and the European Union were in Bhutan, Wangdi said.

"The international observers are free to travel to any polling station to see the poll being conducted," he said.

In the May primaries, the governing Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, or Peace and Prosperity Party, headed by outgoing Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley, secured 45 percent of the vote compared to the opposition PDP's 35 percent.

Campaigning ahead of Saturday's elections was largely subdued, with the 94 candidates holding small public meetings and rallies and participating in debates on state-run television.

In a bid to keep the elections free, the election commission prohibited candidates from offering food, including the customary cheese and beer, to people attending the rallies.

"No freebies. This was our directive to the political parties," Wangdi said.

Sandwiched between Asian giants China and India, Bhutan was long closed to the rest of the world before starting to open up in the 1960s. Foreigners and the international media were first admitted in 1974, and television arrived only in 1999.

India has had a special relationship with Bhutan, and over the decades Bhutan has been the biggest recipient of Indian aid. Thousands of Bhutanese study in India, and New Delhi has helped build several hydropower plants in Bhutan, with the electricity being sold to India.

However, India's decision early this month to cut subsidies on cooking gas and kerosene to Bhutan was an election issue. The Bhutanese government has asked India to reconsider its decision as the prices of cooking gas and kerosene have doubled.

New Delhi said it would review the decision and work out a solution once India finalizes its financial aid to Bhutan for the next five years. The last aid plan ended in June.

Media reports say India cut the subsidies to show its unhappiness over the Bhutanese prime minister's cozying up to rival China. The opposition PDP also blamed the governing party for a deterioration of ties with India.

An editorial in Bhutan's English-language daily Kuensel, which the government has a majority share in, said, "Many Bhutanese are hurt and angered by the timing (of the subsidy cuts), and feel it is a deliberate move to rock the elections."