Bhutan's General Elections Loom as Economic Challenges Threaten 'Gross National Happiness' Policy

Bhutans General Elections Loom as Economic Challenges Threaten Gross National Happiness Policy

Bhutan's General elections are just around the corner, with the picturesque Himalayan kingdom facing serious economic challenges that call into question its longstanding policy of prioritizing "Gross National Happiness" over growth. Both parties contesting the vote are committed to measuring the government's success by the happiness and well-being of the people, but the country is grappling with significant issues, particularly for its younger generation. Chronic youth unemployment and a brain drain of migration abroad, with Australia being the top destination, have left many villages in Bhutan feeling deserted, with whispers of an "empty nation" taking root.

The country's youth unemployment rate stands at 29 percent, and the economy has sputtered along at an average of 1.7 percent over the past five years. Tourism, a key earner of foreign currency, has yet to recover from the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic, with foreign tourist numbers in 2023 only reaching around a third of what they were four years prior. Both parties have pledged a huge ramp-up of investment in hydropower, Bhutan's primary source of energy, with promises to develop steel, cement, and other support industries that would provide much-needed jobs.

The election has also caught the attention of Bhutan's neighboring countries, China and India, as they eye strategic contested border zones and foreign policy interests. A "cooperation agreement" was inked between Bhutan and China in October after talks over their disputed northern frontier sparked concern in India, where Bhutan has long been regarded as a buffer state firmly under its orbit. With a population of around 800,000 people and sandwiched between two of the most populous countries in the world, Bhutan's election has far-reaching implications that extend beyond its borders. The fate of this small but strategically located kingdom lies in the hands of its citizens as they head to the polls, mindful of the economic challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

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