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Bhutan’s King Set to Abdicate Powers

November 11, 2002

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GAUHATI, India (AP) _ Bhutan’s king is set to abdicate most of his powers as the isolated Himalayan nation prepares to transform itself into a democracy, officials said Monday.

A committee has completed the first draft of a new constitution that should be ready for deliberation by the people and the largely symbolic National Assembly by the end of the year, Dechen Tsering, a member of the Constitution Drafting Committee, said by telephone from Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital.

``His Majesty the King is very keen that Bhutan should go in for a parliamentary democracy as soon as possible. The process is on full steam,″ said Tsering, who was among the five people nominated by King Jigme Singhye Wangchuk to the 39-member committee.

Bhutan’s absolute monarchy dates from 1907, when King Wangchuk’s great-grandfather Ugyen Wangchuk was formally elected the nation’s first king under the patronage of colonial British rulers, who wanted a strong ruler in the then-unstable country.

Jigme Singhye Wangchuk, educated in India and Britain, was enthroned in 1972 at age 17 after the death of his father, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk.

Thirty years later, the king wants the country to become a constitutional monarchy, with day-to-day affairs of the state run by popularly elected representatives. Bhutan has 700,000 people.

``What the King wants to do is not just cosmetic changes in the system of governance. He is very serious about handing over power to his people,″ said Dawa Tsering, Bhutan’s former foreign minister and one of the country’s most respected leaders.

For the first time, Bhutanese last month elected 201 village headmen by secret ballot. Earlier, headmen were elected by a consensus among district leaders.

``The election of the village headmen this time can be regarded as the first step toward democratic elections. This practice will now go up to election of representatives for the National Assembly,″ Dawa Tsering said.

Bhutan’s government includes a council of ministers and a National Assembly, but nearly all power remains with the king.

He relinquished some authority in 1998, when he gave the National Assembly the authority to remove the monarch with a two-thirds vote. The move was strongly opposed by most Bhutanese, who remain fervent royalists.

In a country run by a monarchy for a century, the imminent changes bring hope and apprehension.

``People are viewing the developments with a lot of caution,″ said Dechen Tsering.

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