NEW DELHI (AFP) – Bhutan's opposition party has swept to power in the Himalayan kingdom's second-ever election due to voter concerns about the economy and the country's famed "Gross National Happiness" index, analysts said Sunday.
Despite expectations of a neck-and-neck contest, the People's Democratic Party (PDP) won a decisive 32 seats in the lower house of parliament, drubbing the incumbent Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) party which took just 15 seats.
The remote and rugged "Land of the Thunder Dragon" became a democracy just five years ago when the Buddhist line of "dragon kings" ceded absolute power, introducing democracy to the country of fewer than 750,000 people.
The elite-backed DPT stormed to victory in the first election in 2008 and won a primary ballot between four parties in May, taking home 45 percent of the vote against the PDP's 33 percent.
But observers say the PDP made rapid late gains on growing financial woes, which were compounded by India's recent decision to cut fuel subsidies to its northeastern neighbour and longtime ally.
"The basic message coming through is that people voted for change," said an editorial by the national Kuensel newspaper after results from the polling stations, which saw a 66 percent turnout.
Bhutan is hugely reliant on India for investment and imports and the kingdom ran out of Indian rupee supplies last year on soaring demand, leading to restrictions on high-end imported goods and on bank loans.
"This victory was not surprising as the economy was going through a difficult time," said M.B. Subba, editor of the Bhutan Today newspaper, who said private sector has been weakened by strict credit limits.
Bhutan is the only country in the world to measure Gross National Happiness (GNH), a development model that focuses on mental well-being and protecting Buddhist culture and the environment, as well as economic growth.
But voters were unhappy that former Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley at times seemed more interested in promoting GNH outside the country while there were problems at home, said Tenzing Lamsang at The Bhutanese newspaper.
The former government "took GNH too far, focused too much on it", he told AFP, adding his belief that the new PDP leaders "will be more realistic in promoting GNH".
Thinley and several of his DPT colleagues had also served as ministers under royal rule before democracy was introduced.
"The feeling was that we had a new system but we had people from the old generation who refuse to change, and that came down to a very top-down style of government," said Lamsang.
One of the key platforms of the PDP's campaign, led by Harvard-educated Tshering Tobgay who is now set to become prime minister, was its promise to decentralise more power to local governments.
The party was also seen to benefit from India's abrupt subsidy cut earlier this month, which some reports said was a sign of disapproval of the former government for trying to improve ties with its other giant neighbour, China.
The PDP is expected to build on traditionally strong links with India.