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PARO, Bhutan (Reuters) - The people of Bhutan cast their vote for tradition and the monarchy, officials said on Sunday, as results came in from a mock election designed as a dress rehearsal for the country's first truly democratic polls next year.
The poll was a big step towards ending a century of royal rule and ushering in a new era of parliamentary democracy in the conservative, mainly Buddhist nation, a prospect which many Bhutanese view with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation.
Quite how seriously people took the non-binding vote is difficult to say, with some saying they had simply voted for their favourite colour.
Nevertheless, the overwhelming winner, with around 44 percent of the vote, was the Druk (Thunder Dragon) Yellow Party, which called for the preservation of Bhutan's traditions, cultures and values.
Yellow is also the colour of the ceremonial scarf worn by the king and by the Je Khenpo, the country's religious head.
"It shows people's respect for the king's colour," said Chencho Tsering, managing director of the majority state-owned newspaper Kuensel.
Nearly 125,000 people turned out to vote, around 51 percent of registered voters, not as many as the election commission had hoped for but a higher turnout than some people had expected.
Queues formed early outside many polling stations visited by Reuters on Saturday.
"We cannot ask for better than this," Chief Election Commissioner Kunzang Wangdi told Reuters. "It is a new thing for many people."
With results from just four out of nearly 500 polling stations still to come in, the Druk Red party which advocated industrial development, was in second place with just over 20 percent of the vote.
It was just 128 votes ahead of the Blue party, whose platform called for a fair society free of corruption.
The Druk Green party, whose manifesto was based on ecologically sustainable development, came fourth with around 15 percent of votes. The Bhutanese call their country Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
Wangdi said the results were "quite reassuring how people look at the current political system and the institution of the monarchy."
The two parties polling the highest number of votes qualify for the second round of the mock election to be held on May 28.
They will be invited to field dummy candidates, likely to be high school students, in each of the country's 47 constituencies, a mechanism designed to produce a two-party system and avoid the need for coalition government.
THE KING'S IDEA
Democracy in Bhutan is the idea of former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck who has been slowly dragging his country into the modern world. Most Bhutanese still dress traditionally to work and television and the Internet arrived only in 1999.
Preparing his people for democracy, the king devolved power to elected local bodies in the 1980s and to a council of ministers in 1998.
As recently as the 1960s, Bhutan had no roads and practically no schools or hospitals. Today education and healthcare are free, and life expectancy has risen to 66 years, from less than 40, a fact most people attribute to royal rule.
Wangdi said the turnout was lower in the country's more remote eastern region because many people registered in their home villages had now moved to the capital Thimpu, which lies in the west, for work.
He said he would encourage people to register where they are living to avoid this problem in next year's election.
As for real political parties, only two have been formed so far, disappointing those who had hoped for a vibrant debate ahead of next year's vote.
One, led by the former king's brother-in-law and Agriculture Minister, Sangay Ngedup, is strongly tipped to take power.
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