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The Primary - Exile Tibetans Elect Their Prime Minister and Members of Parliament

posted Feb 22, 2016, 3:23 PM by The Tibetan Political Review
By Tsewang Norbu (Berlin)

On October 18, 2015 nearly 54 percent of almost 90,000 registered voters of exile Tibetans have taken part in the preliminary election of the Prime Minister and 45 member strong Parliament. This is a significant turn-over in view of the known fact that Tibetans are scattered all over the world and with no postal ballot facility they are, as such, required to go to the earmarked polling stations to cast their votes personally. With one polling station each in Hamburg, Berlin, Bonn, Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Munich for all Tibetans in Germany, it clearly shows how difficult the practical casting of vote really is. In many other countries, it is hardly better. The general election will be held on March 20, 2016.

Political parties have been a marginal phenomenon in the Tibetan democracy. So far only a few parties were established in exile: in 1979 the short-lived Communist Party, in 1994 the National Democratic Party of Tibet, in 2011 the People's Party of Tibet which de facto does not exist anymore today and in 2012 the Tibetan National Congress (TNC) that stands for Rangtsen (independence). Therefore, the election in the Tibetan exile community amounts to a choice of person and as such has the character of a real imperative mandate. In most democratic countries, the preliminary election takes place in the form of nomination of candidates within a party. In the absence of multi-party landscape a Tibetan can declare its candidacy as well as individuals, organizations or parties can propose one or more persons as candidates. For the preliminary election to the post of Sikyong on October 18, 2015, five persons have declared their candidacy. In the general election on March 20, 2016 two candidates with the highest votes will compete against each other.

Chithue or Tibetan Parliament-in-exile is the highest constitutional and legislative body. The three regions of Tibet: Ü-Tsang, Kham and Amdo have ten seats each, Tibetan Buddhist schools: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug as well as pre-Buddhist Bön tradition has two seats each. Bönpos are represented in the exile parliament only since 1976. Tibetans in Europe and North America have two seats each and Tibetans in Australia and rest of Asia altogether have from now on one seat. In order to further push forward the democratization the Dalai Lama has relinquished 2006 his privilege of selecting directly of up to three persons of special merits.

All Tibetans above the age of 18 have passive and above 25 active voting right as long as they are in possession of Green Book (the tax and identity card in one) which is valid since 1972 and are eligible to participate in the election, if they have paid their annual fees - currently 80 € per year for persons with job and € 40 for persons without job. Monks and nuns in the biggest constituency Asia have double votes: one in their regional and another in their religious constituency which, however, contradicts the democratic principle of "one man, one vote".

A Quick Look Back

Thanks to the visionary leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama democratization is the greatest achievement of exile Tibetans besides universal education. Already in the summer of 1959 he convened in Mussoorie (North India) his first tiny cabinet and commissioned it with the forming of ministries and other institutional structures in exile. On September 2, 1960 the first parliament in exile was sworn in. At the same time the Dalai Lama entrusted a group of Tibetans and Indian lawyers to draw up a constitution for a democratic Tibet. This "Constitution of Tibet" was promulgated on March 10, 1963.

In order to make his vision of stable exile community a reality that does no longer depend upon his person only, the Dalai Lama endeavored to create functioning democratic structures during his lifetime. So he commissioned a group of Tibetans to draw up a charter for the exile situation. This "Charter of Tibetans-in-Exile" was adopted by Parliament on June 14, 1991 and governs according to democratic principles the rights and obligations of exile Tibetan community. According to the charter the Dalai Lama was until 2011 both the head of state and government. In 2001 the first direct election of Kalon Tripa (Katri), Head of Cabinet, took place, in which Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche, speaker of the exile parliament, clearly prevailed as he repeated it 2006 in the re-election. The Charter excludes a third term.

2011 - The Year of Complete Withdrawal of the Dalai Lama from Politics

Tibetans in the free world elected their Katri direct for the third time in 2011. As the preliminary election 2010 seemed to herald a clear historical break, the Dalai Lama saw that the time has come to withdraw completely from politics and to carry out the planned smooth transition of power. In an urgent written message on March 11, 2011, just days before the general election, he asked the exile Parliament to amend the Charter to the effect that the political responsibility is transferred to the elected leadership and that Ganden Phodrang, the system of government headed by Dalai Lamas as spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet, is ended.

The term ,Tsanjoel Boeshung' (Government of Tibet in exile) was changed to ,Ue-Boemi Drikzuk' (Central Tibetan Administration). Since then the Exile-Government is also called in Tibetan simply Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). In many ways the Katri-Election 2011 was historic, because it not only has brought about a generational change, but also heralded almost the end of the reign of the old elite of Tibet.

At the historic oath taking ceremony on August 8, 2011 His Holiness handed over the political power with following words "I took over the political leadership of Tibet from Sikyong Tagdrag Rinpoche when I was 16-years old. Today, in the 21st century, when democracy is thriving, I handover the political leadership of Tibet to Sikyong Lobsang Sangay”. Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche handed over the Seal of the Kashag, Council of Ministers, to his successor and thus reiterated the claim of the CTA to continue to be the legitimate representative of the entire Tibetan people. In September 2012 the title ,Sikyong' became official after a parliamentary resolution. In Tibetan this term weighs heavier than Kalon Tripa.

With this act the exile leadership has decided two name changes that go in diametrical directions: a clear devaluation of the establishment but a clear up-grading of the political leadership both in term and substance.

The elections 2015/2016 – Candidates

There were five candidates for the primary 2015 of Sikyong: Tashi Wangdu, an experienced official of the CTA with expertise in business and management; Penpa Tsering, the popular speaker of Parliament and a serious challenger to the incumbent; Lukar Jam Atsok, chairman of Gu Chu Sum and the only candidate with a political alternative; Tashi Topgyal, a former soldier and a clear underdog and Dr. Lobsang Sangay, incumbent and clear favorite. While Lukar Jam stands for Rangtsen (independence) all other candidates profess the Middle Way Policy which was initiated by the Dalai Lama and adopted by parliament as the official policy.

Lobsang Sangay - The Favorite

His re-election 2016 is seen as certain. The charismatic Harvard legal expert as side-boarder has prevailed 2011 against several former ministers and senior officials. Therefore, for this primary it was only a question of extent of his victory. During his first term of office Lobsang Sangay has skillfully groomed his image both nationally and internationally. He has managed to gain considerable personal profile for the office but also for himself through frequent joint appearances with the Dalai Lama. Unlike his prominent predecessor, Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche, he is internationally perceived as a politician to be reckoned with.

Harmony, innovation and self-reliance were his three election promises in 2011. He has hardly made any major errors during his tenure, and Tibetans tend to choose security. In short one could say that the expectation on him was high, there were no major disasters; for a Tibetan lay politician he received considerable attention from the international media - the majority of Tibetans is pleased with him. He has disappointed the intelligentsia, but also the middle and higher ranks of the Dharamsala-establishment.

During his tenure, the unity of the Tibetan society has been badly affected, especially because of stigmatizing Rangtsen supporters as "anti-Dalai Lama" or the unspeakable attempt to divide the Tibetan Youth Congress. Even if this attempt did not stem from Kashag, the whole exile leadership has failed to intervene positively and reconcile. The dialogue with China has completely come to a halt, although Sikyong made further concessions to the extent that his administration is even willing to accept a genuine autonomy under the rule of the Communist Party.

Penpa Tsering - A Slap in the Face of Sikyong

The candidacy of Penpa Tsering from the same political camp can only be interpreted as a clear rebuff of performance of the Sangay Administration and as such it is a firm slap in the face of the incumbent. Penpa Tsering is more eloquent both in Tibetan and English than all other four candidates. Still, he failed to score. His unspeakable refusal to sit with Lukar Jam on the same table in campaign debates has certainly cost him a lot of sympathy in the eyes of mature voters and international observers. Worse, he has damaged the reputation of the democratic office. But his biggest mistake during the election campaign was that he could not or did not want to explain to the voters why he is standing against the incumbent Sikyong from his own camp. It is not enough to say that individuals and groups have asked him to declare his candidacy. In the primary he is in second place, but lagging far behind.

Lukar Jam Atsok - No Chance but perhaps a moderate success?

Lukar Jam Atsok, intellectual and former political prisoner in China, a critic of the current orientation of the Tibetan freedom struggle, brings some hue in this otherwise monotonous election. With his call for independence Lukar Jam makes Sikyong-Election for the first time an election of political choices. He has received fewer votes than expected.

Among others four reasons play here a role. First, since the direct election of 2001 the electorate has become less mature instead of becoming more mature. Second, the CTA leadership, foremost led by speaker of the parliament, Penpa Tsering, tried to stigmatize Lukar Jam as "anti-Dalai Lama".

Thirdly, his clear defeat is also homemade, as he made the unfortunate statement that anyone who gives up independence of Tibet is in theory a traitor "whether it is my father or the Dalai Lama". Even if it were true, Tibetans could never forgive someone making such a statement. After the parliament voted for the Middle Way Approach by relinquishing independence such stand does not fulfill an act of treason. Actually those parliamentarians are the real traitors, but they have been elected by the people with imperative mandate. Fourth, the statement of His Holiness to some young Tibetans in favor of Middle Way Approach and against independence shortly before the primary gave the final blow. Lukar Jams chance to achieve a decent result fell thus dramatically.

Tashi Wangdu and Tashi Topgyal - Two Underdogs

Other candidates are Tashi Wangdu, an official of higher rank with economic and administrative competence. His attempt to conduct a matter-of-fact oriented campaign by criticizing deficiencies in the Sangay-Administration was strangulated early with full force of the establishment. Tashi Topgyal, a shepherd and a simple soldier from Ladakh, has in addition to his fun culture, contributed undoubtedly some constructive approaches to the election campaign debates.

Election Commission - Good Intention, Bad Implementation

The Election Commission (EC) published on 15th July 2015 a 9 point Code of Conduct for the preliminary 2015 and general election 2016 as per Art. 24 (Electoral Rules and Regulations). Although doubts are expedient whether all 9 points are fully in conformity with the constitution, the attempt is to be welcomed that forbid coercing, slander or defamation, false propaganda or abuse of office and facilities by incumbent officials.

Some points are, however, highly contentious. For example the CTA has accredited eleven organizations as NGOs, many of which have supported or even nominated the incumbent Prime Minister and/or speaker of Parliament. The Tibetan National Congress on the other hand supporting Lukar Jam Atsok is, however, not accredited as NGO and its request for recognition has so far remained unsuccessful.

What makes tricky is that it is directly linked with item 6 regulating transparency of the election expenses and expenditure ceiling. The costs of an accredited NGO entailed in supporting its candidate will not be attributed to the budget of the candidate. But any cost which TNC with no accreditation incurred in supporting Lukar Jam will be added to his campaign budget. For excess of every 10,000 INR (about 280 €) 25 votes will be deducted.

Among others this curb imposed upon non-accredited NGOs prompted 27 renowned international Tibet supporters to express their concerns about unfair dealing in an open letter to the exiled Tibetan leadership in early October.

Furthermore under point 8 it is forbidden to use Dalai Lama, CTA-Seal, flag or map of Tibet as election symbols. But in social networks, handouts and brochures of organizations which support Dr. Lobsang Sangay and Penpa Tsering there are photos of the two with the Dalai Lama, with Tibet flag or CTA emblem. It is certainly difficult to draw precise boundaries between campaign and official duty. Complaints on that count from the camp of candidate Tashi Wangdu show that the Election Commission is neither able to enforce the Code of Conduct nor penalize violations.

To sum up one can say that the well-intended ineptitude of the Election Commission with its Code of Conduct and its arbitrary interpretation, the monstrous stigmatization of Lukar Jam as an anti-Dalai Lama by the speaker of Parliament, the tacit looking away of Kashag and Parliament in the move to divide the Tibetan Youth Congress and the inability or unwillingness of EC to penalize violations of Code of conduct has apparently triggered among the silent majority a breach in the dike.

It was triggered partly by the totally unsatisfactory, almost mortifying response of the EC to the open letter of 27 Western supporters. (One should remember that after Buddha, Dharma and Sangha the global TSGs were once called the fourth refuge of the Tibetans. Since the partial withdrawal, but certainly by the end of 2007 the relationship between the CTA and the TSGs has gone afield, just to put it mild and polite.) Certainly the response of the EC to the open letter of 52 Tibetan signatories among others from America, Europe and India which in part targets below the beltline and on top of it derogatory in tone as well as another critical open letter of 124 Tibetans mainly from New York, published in the Tibetan language website on 16 and 18 November 2015 and last but not least the critical but highly thoughtful article “Arbitrary Dance of Tibetan Democracy” by the first-time voter Tashi Shitsetsang from Switzerland clearly illustrate that "something is foul with Tibetan Democracy.”

An Initial Conclusion

With due respect to all other candidates the focus during this primary is actually centered around only on three of them. There is a clear winner and two losers. Although Lobsang Sangay has hardly delivered on his three campaign promises, he is the clear favorite in the general election. The losers are Penpa Tsering who has to ascribe his defeat only to himself and Lukar Jam Atsok whose poor performance constitutes not only a defeat for him as a person, but also for the cause.

Since the partial withdrawal of H.H. the Dalai Lama from politics there is within the Tibetan exile community a trend of growing intolerance towards persons with dissenting views. Under the cloak of anonymity in networks, the standard of discussion is decreasing rapidly, sometimes even degenerating into coarse insults or even tirades. Tibetans are increasingly losing their capability to differentiate between constructive criticism and sheer slander.

If a person avows Rangtsen and propagates it openly he is often stigmatized as "anti-Dalai Lama" and "anti-CTA", which unfortunately is often being instrumentalized by part of CTA-Leadership.

Over the past ten years or more, the Dharamsala-Establishment is increasingly becoming thin-skinned to criticism and seems to act according to the motto: Who is not for us, is against us. Since the direct election of Kalon Tripa the culture of currying for favor and deference to authority in the Tibetan society has markedly increased.

After his semi-retirement from politics one even misses increasingly in H.H. the Dalai Lama his former sovereignty. That might be because he feels obliged to protect the CTA and its leadership from criticism because he believes that ultimately he is still required to shoulder the responsibility. Earlier he invites Tibetans to speak out and criticize, even his own handlings.

In the general election on March 20, 2016 the speaker of Parliament Penpa Tsering is expected to narrow the gap to Dr. Lobsang Sangay. But it seems that the incumbent Sikyong is going to emerge again as a clear winner in the upcoming general election. 

This article in German appeared in “Tibet und Buddhismus” 2/2015, page 48-52, published in December 2015 by Tibetisches Zentrum e.V. Hamburg. It was written at the end of November and finalized on December 4, 2015 to incorporate the official results of the primary. On February 8, 2016 the author translated it into English to reach a wider readership.

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