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Some Predictions and Thoughts on the 2016 Tibetan Election Season

posted Jun 16, 2015, 5:47 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Jun 17, 2015, 5:56 PM ]

By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review  


The 2015-2016 Tibetan election season for Sikyong (prime minister) and Chitue (members of parliament) has officially begun.  With the appointment of two additional commissioners, the CTA's independent Election Commission (EC) is up and running.  It has announced the dates and some of the rules. Candidates are beginning to emerge.

The candidates so far

Primary voting will be on 18 October 2015, and the final vote will take place on 20 March 2016.<1>    Already, the first Sikyong candidate has stepped forward: Tashi Wangdu, the head of the Federation of Tibetan Cooperatives in India and a former civil servant of the exile administration.

At a press conference held in Dharamsala on 10 June, Mr. Wangdu announced his candidature for Sikyong.  Wangdu’s election motto is SEEN, an acronym for Sustainable, Education, Economy and Negotiation.  The last point announces that he stands for the Middle Way Approach, a policy that is being pursued by the exile government.

Supporters of Speaker Penpa Tsering are starting to promote Mr. Tsering’s candidacy on social media (it is unclear whether he intends to run).  Many observers assume that the incumbent, Lobsang Sangay, will seek a second term, particularly as his wife and daughter recently moved from Boston to Dharamsala.

Similarly, the National Democratic Party of Tibet (NDPT), the only political party in the exile community other than the still-untested Tibetan National Congress, has announced its nominations for Sikyong and Chitue.  NDPT’s two prime ministerial candidates are Sikyong Sangay and Speaker Tsering.  In its press statement, the NDPT said that the selection was done in conjunction with its regional chapters across India.

Whatever NDPT’s selection process may have been, the nominations are ironic given that NDPT officially stands for Tibetan independence and these two nominees strongly reject this position.  It is also disappointing that NDPT did not put forth some fresh faces.  By nominating two obvious candidates from the “establishment” who reject NDPT’s official position, NDPT may not have helped its relevancy or value-added contribution to Tibetan democracy.

There are likely to be exciting races for Chitue, including a newly-created seat for Australia/Asia-Pacific.  Likewise, there is the possibility of candidates stepping forward who seek to have the pro-independence viewpoint represented in Dharamsala.

Since the preliminary is still a few months away, hopefully more candidates will emerge giving exile Tibetans multiple choices
(including some gender diversity) through which to enjoy their democratic rights.

The EC’s new campaign rules and why they matter

At a press conference on June 10th, the EC laid out some much needed new campaign rules.  We applaud Mr. Sonam Choephel Shosur, the Chief Election Commissioner, and his team for their leadership in creating and clarifying these rules.

Aside from a cap on campaign expenditures (discussed below), there are other important new rules the EC has decreed.  It is now mandatory for any supporters to have written approval from their candidates, without which they cannot initiate any election campaign.  (It is not clear how the EC plans to enforce this rule, or deal with any violations, or balance it with the rights of free speech and association).

Furthermore, the EC has declared that posters, pamphlets, banners and other campaign tools cannot include the Tibetan national flag, His Holiness’ photo, a map of Tibet, or the emblem of the exile administration.  The EC also said that all printed materials related to the upcoming election must bear both the supporter’s name as well as that of the printer.   The candidate and the candidate’s supporters and team handling press and publicity must inform the local EC office of the press and publicity that they will be doing. 

Setting aside concerns about enforcement and free speech, we applaud the EC in promulgating rules that strengthen accountability and transparency in Tibetan democracy.  As a further step towards this accountability and transparency, we hope that each candidate will formally designate a campaign manager. Ultimately, of course, the responsibility for the campaign must rest with the candidate himself or herself.

Campaign expense rules, favoring India-based candidates and the incumbents

The new rules about campaign expenditures are a major development, with potentially far-reaching implications that are not entirely positive.  A Sikyong candidate can spend no more than Rs. 800,000 (about US$12,500), and a Chitue candidate can spend no more than Rs. 300,000 (US$4,700).  These amounts include any expense incurred by individuals or organizations supporting the potential candidates.  The candidates and their supporters must submit their total campaign accounts to their respective regional election commissions before the announcement of the election results.

At first glance, many will likely applaud this rule.  Financial transparency should have been requirements from the first election, but at least the EC is making a strong effort to address this now.  Like other democracies' experiences with campaign finance control, however, there are some important details that will need to be addressed.

Rs. 800,000 may seem like a large sum at first glance, but actually the new expenditure caps are low compared to spending during the last election.  During the 2010-2011 election, TPR documented the campaign finance information of the three Sikyong (at that time called Kalon Tripa) candidates. 

TPR documented that Tenzin Tethong campaigned fairly actively, and voluntarily disclosed his funding sources in raising $29,978.
<2>  Tashi Wangdi, by contrast, was fairly limited in the scope of his campaigning, and he voluntarily disclosed his sources in raising $11,208.<3>  Lobsang Sangay was vague about his sources (referring to “friends”) and would not disclose his total fundraising.<4>  Given Mr. Sangay’s active campaigning and the absence of any other information, it might be reasonable to assume funding at least on par with Tethong if not higher.

If we equate funding with campaigning, then the new limits mean that a 2016 Sikyong candidate cannot campaign even half as actively as Tethong or Sangay did in 2011.  He or she will only be able to campaign similarly to Tashi Wangdi in 2011 (that is: not much).

A candidate in 2016 will be especially constrained in their ability to travel extensively as Sangay and Tethong did, given that travel seemed to take up a major part of their expenditures.   This constraint would be a special burden on a candidate from the West, who (like Sangay and Tethong in 2011) will have to fly multiple times to India, where the majority of voters reside.  Conversely, this rule will give an advantage to an India-based candidate, who will not have to pay for such trips.

As well as the new rule favoring an India-based candidate, such a cap also reinforces the advantage of incumbency.  Sikyong Sangay has traveled extensively to basically every Tibetan community and settlement in exile, on official business.  During these trips, he has not been reticent about promoting his administration.  He is likely to travel more over the next year, and also use other official platforms like Tibet.net to communicate his message.  The less frequent official travel by Speaker Tsering raises similar issues. This is the byproduct of being an incumbent, and a non-incumbent naturally does not enjoy this advantage.

The Tibetan democracy (like any democracy) must simply recognize that the incumbent holds a significant advantage, and consider whether the playing field can or should be leveled.  For example, now that election season has started, what is the permissible dividing line between official travel and a campaign visit?  What about official media outlets being used to promote an incumbent and his election manifestos?  Should any of that expense be borne by the candidate instead of the CTA? Should any of that expense count toward the Rs. 800,000?  The EC’s new guideline does not have any provision on these questions.

We expect that the Rs. 300,000 cap on Chitue candidates will be less of an issue, given the smaller geographic area of a Chitue's constituency.  Unlike a Sikyong candidate, a Chitue candidate can focus on (for example) India, Europe, or North America, instead of needing to campaign everywhere.  But this cap will still constrain a Chitue candidate's ability to campaign and travel.

Verification and loopholes?

The EC will need to work on how it can accurately verify the candidates' expenditures, and do so in a transparent way that treats every candidate the same.  An official reliance on candidates’ voluntary reporting is ripe for exploitation, and should not be tolerated in any functioning democracy.  Therefore, how will the EC ensure that the candidates’ voluntary reporting is accurate and complete?  As a guardian of Tibetan exile democracy, the EC must “trust but verify” – including through the power to independently audit a campaign’s expenditures and receipts.

There is also a major loophole that needs to be addressed.  The EC’s rules state that the funding caps apply to expenses incurred by organizations supporting the candidates, but what will the EC do if a candidate genuinely does not have control over the activities of some supporters?   Is it reasonable in a democracy to assume that a candidate has an iron grip on all of his or her supporters?  And on the flip side, how will the EC deal with an unscrupulous candidate who uses shadowy proxies, and then disclaims any connection?

Additionally, the EC has now put itself in a position where it must decide arcane accounting rules.  For example, if a donor with access to the right equipment gives a candidate thousands of campaign DVDs as an “in kind” donation, how will that expense be counted?  The cost to the candidate (free), the cost to produce (low), or the market value (higher)? Regarding travel expenses, what if a North America-based candidate has (or claims to have) a trip to India planned for family or religious reasons or has other business there -- can they add on campaign stops?  If so then what part of the total trip is counted as a campaign expense?

In the United States system, campaign finance restrictions have caused many donors to divert their funding from candidates' campaigns to supposedly-independent and unaccountable entities called "super PACs" which are free of such control.  This has been likened to the ability of water to always find its way through cracks and around dams.   Similarly in the Tibetan context, it likely that the EC’s rule will cause some campaign activity to try evading this expenditure cap.  The EC will then have to decide how it will react.  Is it fair to penalize a candidate if he or she genuinely has no control over some supporters?  And is it fair to the other candidates to allow an an unscrupulous candidate to skirt the rules by actively using shadowy supporters?

Hopefully the EC will determine a fair and transparent way to deal with these issues.  This should be announced in advance, to avoid any risk of contentious decisions or disqualifications after the fact.

Predictions for the election: will the campaigns be clean or will we need some mops?

The 2011 election campaign was a historic and exciting development in Tibetan democracy.  We also learned some important lessons.  One was the need for campaign finance reform.  TPR called for transparency during the 2011 election, because we believed that each candidate should disclose the sources of his or her funding, but without necessarily a cap on expenditures.<5>  The EC has taken a different approach: a cap combined with, at least, disclosure to the EC of expenditures.  It is not yet clear whether the EC will also look at the candidates' funding sources, which is crucially important, or whether the EC will make any of this information public for the voters to evaluate.

Another development during the 2011 campaign that we fear will re-emerge is the use of unaccountable surrogates.  These individuals were able to make sometimes-incendiary statements or charges (occasionally anonymously), and the candidate was able to disclaim any responsibility.<6>  We expect that, with the new expenditure caps, the use of such "unofficial" surrogates will only grow. 

To be clear, we are not referring to ordinary citizens expressing their views for or against a particular candidate (which should be encouraged), but to the more organized efforts carried out perhaps in unofficial collaboration with the candidate.  The EC’s rule on publicity materials will clean much of this up.  But an unscrupulous candidate may still try to disclaim knowledge of third parties attacking other candidates.

We expect that such personal attacks will continue to be an issue in the upcoming election.  This is especially because "unity" in the Tibetan community has suffered in the past few years.  For example, if a pro-independence candidate emerges, we expect that he or she may be branded with absurd allegations about being "against" His Holiness, or claims that there is no room for differing views on this issue in the Tibetan government-in-exile.  It is up to all candidates to stand together to not only decline to join in such attacks, but to actively and forcefully refute them.  That is the best way to restore "unity".

Similarly, we expect to see more examples of the use of surrogates to attack candidates' history or finances.  For example, during the March 2015 Parliament session, a Chitue seemingly out-of-the-blue brought up charges against Speaker Penpa Tsering.  The Chitue repeated a claim made by the late Kalon Juchen Thupten, who condemned Tsering's alleged personal actions relating to the late Kathak Trulku and Tsering's alleged role in gaining control of a Kollegal carpet factory.  In response, Tsering walked out of Parliament and resigned as speaker (he subsequently withdrew his resignation).
<7>  If Speaker Tsering runs for Sikyong, we expect that these issues may continue to follow him unless he addresses them openly.

Possibly not coincidentally, the allegations against Speaker Tsering followed a similar incident that occurred in the March 2014 Parliament session.  Then, Sikyong Sangay was forced to address several questions raised about allegations first printed in the Asian Age.
<8>  One issue was whether Sangay signed (and avoided admitting) "Overseas Chinese National" papers for a trip to China in 2005.  Another issue (apparently referring to Sangay's public mortgage documents)<9> was how he was able to pay off a quarter-million dollar mortgage just four years after buying his house in Massachusetts, and just a week before he became Kalon Tripa.  In response, Sangay sidestepped the questions, including by conflating the purchase of a house with paying off the mortgage.  As with Speaker Tsering, these charges (especially the mortgage issue, which emerged only after the last election) are likely to follow Sikyong Sangay assuming he runs again.

We hope that both Speaker Tsering and Sikyong Sangay address the relevant facts head-on.  That way the voters can decide if there is anything to be concerned about, or whether the issues can be put to rest once and for all, and cease being used for distracting political attacks.

We also hope that all candidates call on their supporters and surrogates to focus on the policy issues that this upcoming election should really be about.
<10>  Most importantly, we hope that the candidates can vigorously debate three pressing issues: (1) the future course of the Tibetan freedom movement, including how one even defines "freedom", (2) how to restore true unity to the Tibetan community with respect for diversity of opinions and freedom of speech, and (3) the future of the Tibetan settlements in India and Nepal.  The 2016 election is a historic opportunity for the Tibetan people to strengthen our democracy.  We look forward to a productive and constructive election season.



<2>  http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.org/project-updates/wheredoesthemoneycome
<3>  http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.org/project-updates/ampaignfinancetransparencytashiwangdisresponse4
<4>  http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.org/project-updates/wheredoesthemoneycome
<5>  http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.org/project-updates/acallforcampaignfinancetransparency 
<6>  http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.org/project-updates/demagoguesvdemocrats
http://youtu.be/gT7TYMZcU8Q (at 1:02)

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