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Bhutan opposition wins parliamentary elections

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WASBIR HUSSAIN | July 13, 2013 11:44 AM EST | AP

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GAUHATI, India — Bhutan's main opposition People's Democratic Party won a majority of seats in parliamentary elections Saturday and will take over power in the tiny Himalayan nation.

The PDP won 32 seats in the 47-member National Assembly, according to results posted on the official website of Bhutan's Election Commission. The ruling Peace and Prosperity Party won only 15 seats.

Chief Election Commissioner Kunzang Wangdi said official results would be formally announced Sunday.

The PDP has criticized the government for a recent deterioration of ties with neighbor and close ally India and had campaigned heavily on the issue. The party had also sought greater devolution of power to the people, a slogan that proved popular in rural areas.

PDP leader Tshering Tobgay is likely to be named prime minister of the new government. Tobgay was the leader of the opposition in the outgoing parliament.

Hundreds of thousands of people went to the polls to elect a government in Bhutan's second parliamentary elections. The remote nation of about 738,000 held its first election in 2008 after King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk voluntarily reduced the monarchy's role in running the country.

Nearly 382,000 people were eligible to cast their vote to elect the assembly.

"Preliminary estimates indicate that more than 80 percent of the electorate has voted," Wangdi said.

Primaries held in May had eliminated three of five political parties, leaving the Peace and Prosperity Party and the People's Democratic Party in the fray.

Prior to Saturday's voting, election authorities had set up 850 polling stations, including in hard-to-reach mountain villages.

Long lines snaked out from polling stations throughout the day, with people coming out in droves to choose their representatives.

Authorities sealed off Bhutan's borders with India, and the Bhutanese army assisted the country's small police force to ensure that the elections were held peacefully, Wangdi said.

International poll observers from Britain, India and the European Union were in Bhutan, Wangdi said.

"The international observers are free to travel to any polling station to see the poll being conducted," he said.

In the May primaries, the Peace and Prosperity Party, headed by outgoing Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley, secured 45 percent of the vote compared to the PDP's 35 percent.

Campaigning ahead of Saturday's elections was largely subdued, with the 94 candidates holding small public meetings and rallies and participating in debates on state-run television.

In a bid to keep the elections free, the election commission prohibited candidates from offering food and drinks, including the customary cheese and beer, to people attending the rallies.

"No freebies. This was our directive to the political parties," Wangdi said.

Sandwiched between Asian giants China and India, Bhutan was long closed to the rest of the world before starting to open up in the 1960s. Foreigners and the international media were first admitted in 1974, and television arrived only in 1999.

India has had a special relationship with Bhutan, which over the decades has been the biggest recipient of Indian aid. Thousands of Bhutanese study in India, and New Delhi has helped build several hydropower plants in Bhutan, with the electricity being sold to India.

However, India's decision early this month to cut subsidies on cooking gas and kerosene to Bhutan was a major election issue. The Bhutanese government has asked India to reconsider its decision, with the prices of cooking gas and kerosene doubling.

Media reports say India cut the subsidies to show its unhappiness over the Bhutanese prime minister's cozying up to rival China.

New Delhi said it would review the decision and work out a solution once India finalizes its financial aid to Bhutan for the next five years. The last aid plan ended in June.

An editorial in Bhutan's English-language daily Kuensel, which the government has a majority share in, said, "Many Bhutanese are hurt and angered by the timing (of the subsidy cuts), and feel it is a deliberate move to rock the elections."