Bhutan votes in preliminary round of national elections

By Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Bhutan began voting on Thursday in the preliminary round of national elections to choose two political parties that will contest the fourth free vote since democracy was established in the Himalayan kingdom 15 years ago.

Nestled between China and India, Bhutan is known for its Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, an economic gauge that takes into account factors normally ignored by gross domestic product measures, like recreation and emotional well-being.

Nearly half a million of the country’s fewer than 800,000 people are eligible to vote for the five political parties that are in the fray.

The two parties that win the highest number of votes will qualify for the final round of the election to the 47-member National Assembly, set to take place on Jan. 9.

Voting started at 8 a.m. (0200 hours GMT) and will close at 4 p.m. Results are expected by Friday, the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) said.

“I am rushing to the polling centre to cast my vote,” said Karma, a voter who uses one name and hails from Punakha, located 55 km (34 miles) north east of the capital Thimphu.

Analysts say all five political parties have vowed to boost the $3 billion economy that is dependent on aid and tourism.

Their other pledges are also similar, such as promising to tap the country’s vast potential to generate hydro-electric power and to boost agricultural growth.

Bhutan, which is roughly the size of Switzerland, has deep economic and trade relations with its southern neighbor, India, which is its biggest donor.

(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Stephen Coates)