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Improving Elections, Improving Democracy

posted Mar 23, 2011, 5:33 PM by The Tibetan Political Review
By Nima R.T. Binara

9 April 2010 -- Sometime next year, the Tibetan electorate in exile will decide upon the successor to the current Kalon Tripa, marking the first democratic transition of executive power in the history of the Tibetan nation.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to say exactly when this historic vote will happen, because it has not yet been scheduled.  Nor is it possible yet to know the names of the candidates, because none has officially been declared.  If the previous Kalon Tripa election is any guide, the primary election will be between December 2010 and March 2011, followed by the general election around June 2011; declared candidates will likely be slow in emerging.


This is a problem, because the goal of a democracy should be to maximize voter participation among an informed citizenry.  This goal is not helped by the big question marks hanging over the timing of the Kalon Tripa vote, and even more importantly the identity of the candidates.


How can the Tibetan electoral process be improved to promote this goal, while respecting established precedents and institutions?  What are the lessons that Tibetan democracy can learn from the systems used by other democracies? 


This article tries to contribute some answers to these questions.  Its recommendations are not meant to be definitive solutions, as I do not claim to be an expert on the inner workings of Dharamsala.  Instead, based on a fresh perspective, this article is intended to be part of an ongoing discussion amongst all Tibetans interested in improving their nation and their democracy.



Strengthen the Tibetan Central Election Commission


In order to improve Tibetan democracy, a necessary step is to strengthen the institution charged with driving the voting process: the Tibetan Central Election Commission.  The Commission derives its powers from Chapter VIII of the Charter of Tibetans in Exile.  The Charter provides the Commission with responsibility over issues “pertaining to the election of the members of the Tibetan Assembly, the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the Tibetan Assembly, the Kalons and [Kalon Tripa]…” 


The Commission is headed by a full-time Chief Commissioner appointed by HH the Dalai Lama to a 5 year term, currently Mr. Jamphel Choesang la.  The Commission has a permanent staff, but the Deputy Commissioners are only appointed on an ad hoc basis.  According to Article 97 of the Charter, the Deputy Commissioners “may be appointed, from time to time, by the Chief Commissioner … in consultation with the Kashag.”  Despite this provision, the Deputy Commissioners are expected to be appointed by HH the Dalai Lama, according to a source in the Tibetan government.


A source in Dharamsala tells me that the reason the Commission has not yet scheduled elections is that the full team of commissioners is not in place.  The team is expected to be appointed sometime in June 2010 (only six months before the possible primary election date).  Instead, if the Commission were fully staffed on a permanent basis, this body would be in a position to plan and schedule elections much further in advance. 


Why will the Commission only be fully staffed a short six months before the primary election?  I can only speculate. 


Perhaps it is because His Holiness currently appoints the Deputy Commissioners?  His Holiness is over-burdened already, and it makes no sense to request that His Holiness appoint the Deputy Commissioners when the Charter is clear that this is the job of the Chief Commissioner.  The reason the Charter provides that His Holiness appoints the Chief Commissioner is probably to place the Commission above politics.  However, now that His Holiness has expressed confidence in Jamphel Choesang la, the latter should be allowed to do his job. 


Perhaps there are budgetary restrictions on the Commission hiring Deputy Commissioners?  If there is a budgetary problem, then the Tibetan Assembly should make a standing appropriation for the Election Commission.  This institution is far too important to Tibetan democracy to be starved of necessary resources. 


Perhaps there is fear of changing the way the appointments have been scheduled in the past?  If so, the Chief Commissioner should be confident in his power to change the timing.  There is nothing in the Charter that would prohibit the Chief Commissioner from appointing the Deputy Commissioners immediately upon the start of his term.  According to the Charter, he may appoint other members of the Commission “from time to time,” which should be interpreted as any time he sees fit. 


The Commission should not feel threatened or defensive by these recommendations.  I recognize its laudable achievements.  Indeed, I believe it should be made permanently full-time, and its staff should be provided the resources to do their important jobs over a much longer timeline than the current compressed election schedule.



Provide Longer Election Timelines


Why should the Election Commission provide a longer election timeline?  Do not some democracies like Britain or Canada hold elections on notice as short as one month or 36 days, respectively?


The Tibetan electoral system needs a longer timeline for two reasons.  First, the electorate is widely dispersed around the world; candidates and voters face far greater obstacles in communicating, providing feedback, and debating.  Second, the Tibetan system has not yet generated political parties, which are important in identifying candidates and communicating with voters.   As a result, more time is needed for candidates to step forward.  More time is also needed by the voters to hear from the candidates, ask questions, debate with other voters, and form their final decisions in a rational and well-informed way.


Having a confirmed Kalon Tripa election date now would provide an impetus for candidates to begin to run.  It is true that nothing stops a person from running anytime, but the Tibetan social norm against self-promotion tends to encourage reticence among potential candidates.  It is only once the election season is officially launched (if at all) that most Tibetans would feel comfortable declaring an interest in seeking high office. 


Therefore, there is a clear link between the Commission’s election schedule and candidates’ willingness to step forward.  While there is an admirable private effort to nominate candidates via the website, what is really needed is for the official system to be kicked into high gear well in advance.

Additionally, the Tibetan system need not look to the timing of Westminster democracies like Britain or Canada when it is actually closer to a republican system.  Although “Kalon Tripa” is translated as “Prime Minister,” the position is not the leader of the parliamentary majority.  A Kalon Tripa is closer to a directly-elected republican executive.  In a republic like the United States, presidential elections take place on a known schedule, on a date that is set by the constitution.  Barack Obama began his formal run for the presidency a full 22 months before the general election.


The drawback to having a longer political timeline, as shown by the U.S. system, is the danger of too many resources being required by the candidates to fight long and costly elections.  However, on balance, this seems an acceptable risk in the Tibetan situation, where campaign finance reform has not been a problem whereas voter participation and information has.  Thus, the benefit outweighs the risk.  Greater notice would allow candidates to be identified, and voters to better evaluate, judge, and communicate with the candidates, thereby improving Tibetan democracy.


How should this longer timeline practically be achieved?  As stated above, the Election Commission needs to be strengthened.  The Assembly should also revise the regulations governing the Commission by providing a longer election timeline.  The Commission is run by professional and competent civil servants, but the Assembly is accountable to the people and therefore should not abdicate its oversight responsibility.  While the Commission should be given adequate discretion, it should be run within guidelines set by the people’s representatives.  These guidelines should mandate a sufficiently lengthy election season.



Establish True Multiparty Democracy 


Much has been said about the issue of political parties in the Tibetan system.  MPs such as Karma Yeshi la and Karma Choephel la have endorsed the concept, and HH the Dalai Lama is on record as saying that a future democratic Tibet should be a multiparty democracy. 


This article cannot add much to what has already been said.  But it is impossible to discuss the delay in identifying the Kalon Tripa candidates without addressing Tibetan democracy’s lack of political parties (excepting NDPT, which does not field its own candidates).  In most democracies, it is political parties that identify, nurture, and field candidates.  Tibetan democracy puts itself at a disadvantage by lacking parties to fill this role.


Let us be perfectly clear that the current party-less Tibetan democracy is not some novel and harmonious system that has been invented in Dharamsala.  “Party-less” does not mean “conflict-less” or “faction-less.”  It just means that conflicts and factions are expressed in other, often more destructive, ways.  Instead, “party-less” means the lack of mature democratic institutions.


Indeed, a very purpose of democracy is for the elected legislature to be a forum for the debate and resolution of the natural conflicts and competing ideas in a society.  Political parties are the most effective mechanism that democracy has developed to channel these conflicts. 


Now, Tibetans are relatively new to the great experiment of democracy, and the issues Tibetans confront have largely been faced before.  This includes the debate on whether a parliament should be selected based on individual people or political parties.  Tibetans do not have to reinvent the proverbial wheel.  The Nineteenth Century sociologist Max Weber provides a useful framework.


Weber wrote that there are three types of political authority: charismatic, traditional, and rational-legal.  Charismatic authority is that of an exceptional religious or heroic leader.  Traditional authority is based on the concept that things have always been done a certain way.  Rational-legal authority, on the other hand, is based on institutions rather than personalities, and promotes bureaucracies defined by rationality and legal legitimacy.  Maturing societies move along a continuum, away from charismatic and traditional authority, toward rational-legal authority.


Rational-legal authority is the foundation of the modern state.  Political parties play an important rational-legal role in the way that they institutionalize the formulation and exercise of public policy.   Parties are bigger than any particular person.  And they help political candidates by giving the candidate a “brand” that is larger than themselves.


Without a political party behind them, successful candidates are left to compete based on essentially charismatic authority.  They try to make a name for themselves based on personal qualities like “honesty,” “sincerity,” or “patriotism,” divorced from the larger political issues facing the polity.  This is a problem because it prevents political leaders from focusing on the big picture.


A successful party-less candidate can also appeal to voters based on an appeal to traditionalism, such as the candidate’s alleged fidelity to an established system.  The problem is that this leads to an innate conservatism that borders on myopia.  At a time when a society may face great challenges that demand bold action, leaders chosen based on a blind appeal to “tradition” are often unsuited to the challenge.


From the above discussion, it should be clear that the current Tibetan political system mostly involves charismatic and traditional authority.  It does not involve the more modern rational-legal authority, including institutionalized political parties.  One consequence is that the resulting leadership is predisposed to the small-picture.  It is predisposed to stick with “tradition” even when bold reforms are demanded by the times. 


The solution is to embrace a more rational-legal approach, including the formation of robust political parties.  Parties do not need to be provided for in the Tibetan Charter; the constitutions of the U.S., Britain, and Canada are all silent on the idea of political parties.  All that is needed is a group of Tibetans determined to help their political system mature and strengthen.  They would need to form a party, draft a policy platform, and field candidates.





The Tibetan people in exile should legitimately be proud of their achievements as refugees over the past six decades.  After being violently thrust homeless into the modern world, they have achieved a remarkable social, cultural, religious, and political re-consolidation.  Most Tibetans will also agree that far too much of this success is due to the tireless efforts of HH the Dalai Lama, with the rest of the Tibetan people content to let a beloved leader shoulder the majority of the burden.


For those Tibetans who care about lessening His Holiness’ burden; for those Tibetans who care about the political growth of their society; for those Tibetans who care about the power of democracy to inspire their brethren inside of Tibet: it is time to step forward. 


It is time to demand that the driver of the democratic process – the Election Commission – be permanently fully staffed so that its work can be carried out in a timely manner.  It is time to demand that the Assembly ensures that the Election Commission has the funds it needs to operate, and revises regulations to lengthen the election season.  It is time that the Tibetan democracy stops pretending that a party-less system is superior, and learns from democracies that have come before.  And it is time for the emergence of political parties to institutionalize Tibetan politics. 


It is time, but has anything been scheduled?


Nima R.T. Binara serves on the board of the Tibet Justice Center and the Global Tibetan Professionals Network-North America, and the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review.