By Dhundup Gyalpo
21 June 2010 - If anyone were to go by the recent barrage of official Chinese rhetoric, the elections held by the Central Tibetan Administration are anything but democratic. Their reason for this: the National Democratic Party of Tibet (NDPT), which hey claim is the "only political party of the Dalai clique", has already selected a list of candidates for the coming elections of Kalon Tripa and Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile.
In the latest article published by People’s Daily, an organ of the Communist Party of China, it is claimed that His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s recent comments on democratic elections in exile are only “skin deep”. The article, titled Dalai Clique’s democratic lies, turned out to be a shoddy translation of the original in Chinese published earlier by China Ethnic News.
The assertion by the author of the original article, Du Xinyu, that NDPT is “the only political party of Dalai clique” is of course open to debate. What is even more absurd is the suggestion that NDPT, by virtue of being “the only political party of Dalai clique”, is the one party that declares nominations for exile elections. The underlying message apparently is a misperception, if not deliberate misinformation, based entirely on their own experience of pseudo-elections in which people are allowed to vote only on candidates hand-picked by the Communist Party.
Those familiar with the rituals of electioneering in exile would also know about the conspicuous absence of public hustings and competing political parties that are the central characteristic of elections in democratic countries. (This may have been a reason why Kalon Tripa Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche once explained the Tibetan polity as “a partyless democracy”.)
Notwithstanding the lack of political parties in the usual sense of the term, the Tibetan elections are not totally devoid of public campaigning. The exile NGOs and province/region-based associations that are autonomous of government engage in their own unique ways of canvassing for polls, a highlight of which is the declaration of nominations, usually by advertising them in the print media.
NGOs and region-based associations that usually propose candidates for every election include NDPT, Gu-Chu-Sum Movement, the associations of the three traditional provinces of Tibet (Dotod, Domed and Utsang) and their regional chapters, etc.
Furthermore, it would be pertinent to note that even before NDPT made its nominations public, the association of Domed (Amdo) province of Tibet has already announced some 13 nominations for Kalon Tripa. According to their announcement on 16 March 2010, later covered by Tibetan newspapers, “In a special general meeting of the Domed association held from 14-16 March 2010, the executive heads and delegates of all the regional chapters of the association have voted to propose nominations for the election of Kalon Tripa in 2011. The following  candidates received the highest number of votes. The photos and biographies of these candidates will soon be posted on our website.”
It is even more interesting to note that the Dharamshala chapter of Domed association has later proposed a different list of five nominations for Kalon Tripa and 10 for the Tibetan parliament. Many other NGOs and associations are also expected to throw their nominations into the ring for consideration.
This proposition of candidates is not merely limited to NGOs and associations. Several prominent Tibetans, like former Tibetan Supreme Justice Commissioners, Kalons and MPs, have in their individual capacities also proposed their choice of nominations through the media. In fact, even an ordinary Tibetan, or a group of them, also propose candidates by advertising in the print media.
It would thus be wrong to suggest that NDPT, or for that matter, the Tibetan administration, carries any role in finalising the election nominations. Every Tibetan election has a primary round in which people are free to nominate any candidate they deem fit. In the final round of general elections, people vote on candidates shortlisted from the outcome of primaries. Thus, in a true democracy, there is no deciding factor over and above the people’s vote.
The way Du Xinyu has spun this whole matter is, to put simply, jaw-dropping. He is convinced to the point of cockiness, that the forthcoming Tibetan elections are headed for major failure. He reveals that, of all the nominations proposed by NDPT, one out of total three nominees for Kalon Tripa and 24 out of 45 nominees for Tibetan parliament have already “quitted the election”.
The truth could not be more different. The reason behind a majority of those who withdrew their names from NDPT’s nominations is not because they had refused to contest elections; it was rather to avoid any possibility of conflict of interest. The party president Chime Youngdrung clarified to this writer that as many of the nominees are already active members of other organisations, they have decided not to contest elections through or with support from NDPT. (It must however be added that it was not unusual in the past elections to see several organisations rooting for the same candidate.)
Another possible reason for withdrawals could have been the mission statement of NDPT, which also includes “to struggle for the restoration of Tibet’s rightful independence.” Those who withdrew their names from NDPT’s list of nominations could have done so as a statement of their support to the policy of Middle-Way Approach, which seeks to achieve genuine autonomy for a Tibet within the People’s Republic of China.
In order to justify his bleak election forecast, Du Xinyu also quoted some cooked-up figures of abnormally low voter turnout in exile. According to him, the 2006 parliamentary elections registered a dismal turnout of 26.8% and “considering the fact that a monk could have two votes, the actual voting rate would be even lower.”
According to the records of the Tibetan Election Commission, the total number of people registered (or eligible) to vote in the 2006 parliamentary elections was 70,500. A total of 43,202 votes were cast in the final election. Since the monks and nuns are entitled to vote in two constituencies, religious (each 2 seats) and provincial (each 10 seats), in order to calculate the actual number of people who have cast their votes, we would have to deduct the votes cast for religious seats. In other words, if we add up the number of people who had voted in the three provincial constituencies of Dotod, Domed and Utsang (total 30 seats), North America (1 seat) and Europe (2 seats), the actual figure would be 37,147, which means the turnout rate was 52.69%.
It must also be noted that thus far, parliamentary seats have not been allocated for Tibetans in Australia and in Asian countries like Taiwan, Japan, Russia, etc. The Tibetan people in these countries are however entitled to vote in the election of Kalon Tripa.
Furthermore, it is also pertinent that during the 2006 election, the popular expectations of a record turnout did not materialize largely because the poll was, due to certain unavoidable circumstances, conducted at a time when the majority of Tibetans were scattered across India for the winter sweater business.
Generally speaking, the factors affecting turnout in polls is a subject of extensive debate. A low turnout can be attributed to a whole host of issues ranging from socio-economic and cultural factors, to institutional factors and modalities of registration. Sometimes, even different methods in measuring voter turnout can cause discrepancies in the count.
It was as such quite amusing to see Du Xinyu propounding a whole new theory claiming that: “The voting rate is an important index for measuring whether a government is a democratically-elected one or not.” Although the facts and figures cited earlier should make it amply clear that the turnout rate was significantly higher than what Du Xinyu has claimed in his article, there is a growing realization that the voter participation should be improved, particularly in the light of 2006 Kalon Tripa election which registered a turnout of mere 44%. The incumbent Kalon Tripa Prof Samdhong Rinpoche won that election with a landslide majority of 29,216 votes (90.72%).
The fact that Tibetan polls are conducted in a free, fair and transparent manner needs no corroboration. Furthermore, the popular faith in democratic processes, or for that matter, the legitimacy of the Central Tibetan Administration, has never been an issue for the Tibetan people. Thus, the low rate of voter participation is often summarily attributed to logistics, level of political consciousness and at times, even to complacency.
As in times of all previous elections, we have been recently witnessing more variety of efforts from both the administration and NGOs aimed at boosting voter participation. And of all measures that could help in nudging the Tibetan people towards the ballot stations, what could be more powerful than giving them a dose of raw Chinese propaganda slandering Tibetan democracy. In that context, Du Xinyu deserves a pat on the back for his vitriolic article, which is provoking Tibetans to think about why they should vote.
Tibet.net is the official website of the Central Tibetan Administration