If we were kings and were wise, the first good thing that we would want to do for ourselves and others would be to abdicate our royal position and become again what we are.
In 2007, the Buddhist nation of Bhutan undertook what the New York Times called a “fire drill for democracy.”1 Having announced his plan to abdicate earlier in the year, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck marked the hundredth anniversary of absolute monarchy in Bhutan by ordering his subjects to begin practicing for a transition to democracy. In April, mock elections were held with ballots listing four colors, each representing a fairly conventional political platform: “Blue” to fight corruption and extend free health care coverage, “Green” for environment-friendly development, “Red” for the promotion of industrialization, and “Yellow” for the preservation of culture and tradition. Yellow won the election by a landslide, taking forty-six of forty-seven constituencies. In Bhutan, yellow is the traditional color of the king.
The idea that a king might lead his country’s transition to political self-determination disturbs many of our cherished ideals about democracy. Demokratia, from the Greek wordsdemos (people) and kratos (rule), means “rule by the people for the people,” in contrast to hierarchical modes of governance like aristocracy and monarchy. Tshering Tobgay, the leader of Bhutan’s People’s Democratic Party, speaks to the sense of cognitive dissonance experienced by Bhutanese citizens thrust into political office: “We’re not starting a party because we have an ideology. We’re not starting a party because we have a vision for a better Bhutan. We are starting a party because the King has ordered us . . . [the people] are beinggiven democracy without having to fight for it. In any other country it would be the other way around.”2 The people of Bhutan receive the injunction from their king to vote democratically for a new leader as a “gift.” It is a gift, however, that must be accepted, a gift that excludes the possibility of collective struggle for the achievement of a new model of government. Surrendering his divine authority, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck collapses his power into the will of his subjects, giving them the gift of nonresistance, which is ultimately the gift of themselves as a “people.” In what seems like the ultimate divine sacrifice, the king renounces his power before his subjects are ready, or willing, to claim power for themselves.