The king of oil-rich Brunei signed today a new constitution that paves the way for the tiny kingdom's first election since 1962, when an armed revolt put an end to its only experiment with democracy.
In a royal ceremony in the Brunei capital, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, wearing his customary white military uniform, signed a series of amendments to the 1959 constitution that would allow for a partly elected parliament of 45 members.
But parliament, which reconvened last weekend for the first time in 20 years as a fully appointed chamber, will not erode the powers of the sultan, who has portrayed the reforms as a way of allowing Brunei's young population of 350,000 to be heard.
The sultan, who has ruled since 1967, took the sudden decision to reconvene parliament in July in a move that some believe reflects a desire to wrap the kingdom in some of the clothes of a liberal democracy, without actually being one.
One of the world's last remaining absolute monarchies, Brunei has increasingly become a political oddity in such important diplomatic clubs as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and the Association of South East Asian Nations.
The sultan has so far given no timetable for elections, though preparations are underway with a new, domed parliament house on the drawing board and an official panel set to study different democratic models around the world.
The last time elections were held in Brunei 42 years ago, the winner was a party that wanted full democracy and to join newly independent Malaysia. The demands were rejected, leading to an armed revolt crushed by the current sultan's father, using Nepalese Gurkha troops, who still help ensure security in Brunei.