Because of the geographical positioning of the country and its isolation from much of the world its early history is very localised and not well documented.
We do know that Tibetan Buddhism came to the country around the 9th Century and in the 12th Century the Drukpa Kagyupa School was established which became the form of Buddhism practiced in the country today.
In 1616 Ngawang Namgyal came to the country from Tibet and established himself as the religious ruler of Bhutan with the title Shabdrung Rinpoche. He brought order out of disorder between various clans and noble families who indulged in low scale disputes and warfare; after his death things deteriorated for the next two hundred years with civil war and infighting.
Around 1885 a new leader emerged called Ugyen Wangchuck who consolidated his powers and worked closely with the British in India. In 1907 he was elected as the hereditary leader of Bhutan and became the first King of the Wangchuck Dynasty.
King Ugyen was able to bring order to the country and crucially signed the Treaty of Punakha with the British in India which guaranteed Bhutan’s independence, granted the Bhutanese Government an annual stipend; although it did take control of Bhutanese foreign relations out of the government’s hands and put it in favour of the British.
Ugyen Wangchuck died in 1926 and was replaced by his son Jigme Wangchuck. When India gained independence in 1947 King Jigme was able to get the Indians to sign the Treaty of Peace and Friendship which continued most of the Treaty of Punakha agreements with the new Indian government.
King Jigme died in 1952 and was replaced by his son Jigme Dorji Wangchuck who started to bring Bhutan out of its isolation and introduced some development into the country. He led Bhutan to membership of the United Nations in 1971. He also introduced a 130 member National Assembly in 1953 although the country remained an absolute monarchy.
In 1972 Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended the throne and continued the process of gentle and slow democratisation. He modernised education and allowed some development of hydro-electric power and tourism. It was he who introduced the concept of “Gross National Happiness.”
At the age of 50 the King started the handover of the throne to his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and announced that he would abdicate by 2006. He ordered democratic elections to take place in 2008.
In those first elections the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, DPT) won 45 of the 47 seats in the Bhutanese National Assembly. The only other registered party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won the remaining two seats.
The new Parliament also contains an upper house, the National Council, of which there are 25 members all of whom have to hold a degree and do not belong to a political party.
Although the country now appears to be democratic, there are still many detractors who say that parliament is completely controlled by the monarchy and ruling elite. That may be partially true, but in a new constitution introduced after 2008 the parliament has the right to remove the monarch with a two-thirds vote and the king has to stand down when he is 65 years old.
King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is Head of State.
The bicameral parliament consists of the National Council which has 25 seats with 20 members elected by each of the 20 electoral districts for four-year terms and 5 members nominated by the King. The National Assembly has 47 members elected for five-year terms.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Bhutan at 27th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 65 (where 100 is least corrupt).