Tibetan Democracy Moves Forward, Faces Challenges

Tibet's exile community will elect a new prime minister in March, but he may have limited power to act, and challenges to democracy remain.

tibet-elections-305.jpg Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama waves to a gathering in Poland, Sept. 22, 2010.

Candidates vying to become the new prime minister in Tibet's government-in-exile are waging an increasingly Western-style campaign as the contest heats up, analysts say.

After a preliminary vote in October, Tibetans in exile have selected three final candidates for kalon tripa, or prime minister, in the India-based government-in-exile, the Central Tibetan Administration. 

A final vote will be held on March 20, climaxing a decade of direct democratic elections to select the kalon tripa. Previously, these officials were handpicked by Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

“We’re seeing a competitive election where no one knows who is going to win,” Nima Binara, a U.S.-trained Tibetan lawyer, said in January to a gathering at the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT).

“And as well, we are seeing what Tibetan democracy has never seen before, which is active campaigning by the candidates going around to the various Tibetan settlements in India and places where Tibetans live in North America and Europe.”

The incumbent, Professor Samdhong Rinpoche, is stepping down after serving the two five-year terms allowed to him under the exile community’s election law.

The three candidates short-listed for the March vote are Tashi Wangdi and Tenzin Tethong, both of whom have long experience in exile government service, and Lobsang Sangay, a research scholar at the Harvard Law School.

Vision accomplished

“His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s vision of a robust democratic society” is now being accomplished, said Binara, whose Tibetan Political Review website tracks and reports on the campaign.

Debates among the candidates have been televised and web-broadcast in India, Europe, and North America, Binara said, adding that he expects a “very high” turnout for the final vote in March.

Binara noted, though, that the campaign so far has focused more on the candidates’ personalities than on specific policy positions—especially concerning Tibet’s right to independence versus the Middle Way policy of talks with China supported by the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 following a failed national uprising against China’s occupation of the Himalayan territory, is regularly vilified by Chinese leaders as a “splittist” seeking Tibetan independence.

But the Dalai Lama himself says that he seeks only a “Middle Way” of greater autonomy and cultural rights for Tibetans under Chinese rule.

A new approach?

There is growing frustration among Tibetans over the stalled Middle Way talks with China, along with a sense that a new approach may be needed, Binara said.

“People are hesitant, I think, to address the issue full-on, because the Middle Way is associated with what His Holiness wants. And I don’t think you’re going to see a candidate who actually comes out and says, “I’m against what His Holiness wants.”

Speaking in an interview, Tibetan writer and independence advocate Jamyang Norbu said that Tibet’s new exile prime minister will have no “real powers to make [national] policy,” even after the campaign.

“As far as the Middle Way policy is concerned, he can’t touch that. He will get into deep trouble.”

A further challenge for the new prime minister will be getting the exile administration “up to par,” Norbu added.

“The administration has suffered tremendously in the last decade,” he said. “It has lost a lot of really good officials, and right now it is not functioning that well at all.”

“This is not a fully constituted democratic government-in-exile at all, not by a long shot.”

Exiled from homeland

Also speaking at ICT, Professor Xia Ming—a political science teacher at the College of Staten Island in New York—said that one of the main challenges now facing Tibetan democracy is that, as exiles from their homeland, Tibetan voters have no defined, unified territory to which they belong.

Instead, they are scattered around the world, he said.

“[But] I don’t think that Tibet will be part of China forever in the future. Maybe there is a chance that Tibet will become independent.”

If that happens, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) will not move to take power in Tibet, a statement on the CTA website says.

“Today, the CTA has all the departments and attributes of a free democratic administration. It must be noted, though, that the CTA is not designed to take power in Tibet.”

“His Holiness the Dalai Lama [has] stated that the present exile administration would be dissolved as soon as freedom in restored in Tibet,” the statement continues. “The Tibetans currently residing in Tibet, he said, would head the government of a free Tibet.”

Speaking at ICT, Nima Binara described Tibet’s incorporation into China as an “abusive relationship” that the Tibetans want to leave.

“Eventually, in the long run, I think there is going to be a divorce,” Binara said.

“I think maybe the question is how the divorce is going to happen. But in the long run, a marriage that’s based on force and slavery is not sustainable.”

Reported in Washington by Richard Finney.


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