Bhutan - Political background

Bhutan's political history is intertwined with its religious history. A dual theocratic system evolved in which religious institutions were administered by the je khempo, or Head Abbot, while civil power was retained by a high officer known as the tiruk desi. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the country encountered constant political strife that undermined the authority of the high officer and increased the power of regional governors. In 1885, the high officer sought aid from China to crush the power of the governors, but one of the regional governors, Ugyen Wangchuk, turned to the British for support. By 1907 Ugyen Wangchuk had consolidated his power enough to be named Bhutan's first hereditary king. In 1910, Bhutan and the United Kingdom signed a treaty allowing the United Kingdom to "guide" Bhutan's foreign affairs, providing British India would not interfere in the internal affairs of Bhutan. Bhutan made the same arrangement with independent India in a treaty signed in 1949.

Since 1969, Bhutan has functioned as a limited monarchy. (Although the country functioned without a constitution for over three decades, in 2002 a committee was established to draft one for the king's review.) The king is appointed from the royal hereditary line by the legislature and may be removed by a two-thirds vote. The late King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk (ruled from 1952–72), father of the current king, undertook reforms to help modernize the country's political institutions (serfdom was not officially abolished until his rule). A Tshongdu (National Assembly) was created in 1953; 105 of the 150 seats are elected to represent villages, 10 represent religious bodies, and 35 are appointed by the king to represent nonreligious interests. In 1965 the king established a Lodoi Tsokde (Royal Advisory Council) and in 1968, a Lhengye Shungtsog (Council of Ministers) to bring more Bhutanese into the political system. The je khempo also maintains considerable authority in the country and most levels of government contain members from Buddhist monasteries. The current monarch, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, has continued his father's political reforms. In 1998, he relinquished his position as head of government and transferred many of his executive powers to a cabinet elected by the National Assembly. He also introduced into law a provision under which the king would abdicate in favor of his hereditary successor if the National Assembly supported a vote of no-confidence by a two-thirds majority.

Political parties are illegal. An opposition party, the Bhutan State Congress, which primarily represents the Nepalese minority, has its headquarters in India. The country is divided into 18 dzongkhag (districts), each governed by a district officer appointed by the king. Popular elections, in which each family is granted one vote, are held at the village level every three years.

In 1968 an eight-member High Court, comprised of judges appointed by the king, was established to hear appeals from decisions made by local headmen and magistrates. The final appeal is made to the king.

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