updated 12/16/2006 4:59:31 AM ET 2006-12-16T09:59:31

The king of Bhutan surprised his nation by handing over the reins of power to his son more than a year ahead of schedule, officials said Saturday.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, 51, signed a royal decree giving charge of the kingdom to Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, 26, at a special session of the Bhutanese Cabinet on Thursday in the capital, Thimphu.

“The decree making this announcement was circulated and discussed Thursday at the special sitting of the Cabinet presided over by the King,” Mingbo Dukpa, managing director of the state-controlled Bhutan Broadcasting Service, told The Associated Press by telephone from Thimphu.

Jigme Singye Wangchuck became king of Bhutan, a Buddhist nation of 700,000 nestled in the high Himalayas between India and China, in 1972 at the age of 17.

The decree was published in Keunsel, the government-owned newspaper, on Friday.

A government media official said the announcement was a surprise.

“We were all expecting the changes to take place only in 2008 as announced earlier by his majesty,” said Kesang, who uses only one name.

There was no immediate information on when the coronation would be held.

The king said a year ago that he would turn over the reign to his son and hold the country’s first national democratic elections in 2008.

To that end, the king has been circulating a draft constitution prepared by a committee of lawyers, government ministers and prominent citizens. The draft provides for two houses of Parliament — a 75-member National Assembly and a 25-member National Council. The king would become head of state, but Parliament would have the power to impeach him by a two-thirds vote.

The current royal National Assembly is expected to approve the new constitution in a few months.

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