By Apa Lhamo*
The preliminary round of the direct election to elect the ‘Sikyong’ (prime minister) and ‘Chithue’ (members) of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile was held on 18 October 2015. The final round is scheduled for 20 March 2016.
How much has the concept of democracy evolved among Tibetans in exile? How has the ongoing election year progressed so far? What are the prospects for the final round?
Democracy in Tibet: A Primer
Although conceived inside Tibet, the idea of democratic governance among Tibetans was essentially implemented in exile in India. The 13th Dalai Lama had tried to initiate numerous democratic reforms in Tibet, but his efforts were mitigated by conservative sections of the society at the time. In 1950, the incumbent Dalai Lama too, after assuming the spiritual and political leadership of Tibet, introduced a number of progressive changes, and inculcated ideas of direct democracy via his Reform Committee. However, the Committee and its introduction of democracy were soon thwarted with the 1959 Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet that subsequently resulted in the Dalai Lama’s exile. Therefore, while there was an indigenous progression towards democracy in Tibet, direct involvement in democratic governance was first experienced by Tibetans in exile.
The Tibetan example of top-down introduction of democracy is unlike most conventional examples, wherein people had to demand and struggle to achieve it. This unique democracy was born in exile in India with the 1963 formalisation of the ‘Draft Constitution for the Future Tibet’, and the subsequent adoption of the ‘Charter of the Tibetans in Exile’ in 1991. Although unique, this nascent democratic movement does share characteristics similar to those of other fledgling democratic movements.
The Election Commission: Progress and Problems
The Central Election Commission (CEC) of Tibetans in exile made set rules for the candidates; their campaign procedures; and set limits on campaign expenditures in accordance with the Charter of the Tibetans-in-Exile. Many lauded the CEC’s efforts towards managing the Tibetan Diaspora that is scattered world over, during in the preliminary election. However, the Commission incurred criticism for its incompetence on certain matters, its authoritarian nature, and its questionable enforcement of election rules. Some critics even alleged that the Commission deliberately manipulated election rules to give advantage to two candidates.
The CEC was severely criticised for its failure to respond when institutions affiliated to the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) banned a Sikyong candidate from campaigning for the polls. The Commission garnered even more criticism for issuing a circular on 20 October 2015 – a day after the preliminary round – on the eligibility rules. The circular stated that for a third candidate to qualify to contest in the final round, the difference of votes between the second and third candidate must be at least 20 per cent.
As many analysts noted, the number of candidates to be shortlisted for the final should be decided in a more reasonable timeframe. There were five candidates vying for the post, of which only two could make it to the final. Critics claim that the new rule was a deliberate attempt by the CEC – which is allegedly at the beck and call of those in the CTA – to keep a certain candidate from competing, due to his strong position of total independence from the Chinese government.
In the 2011 election, five candidates were allowed to campaign for the finals, and all happened to support the Tibetan Government-in-Exile’s position, i.e. middle-way. The CEC’s questionable actions, coupled with its incompetence, are of concern, particularly to the wider Tibetan Diaspora. A group of 27 “long-time Tibet Supporters” too published an open letter to the CTA, expressing their worries and disappointment.
Participation in Elections
Tibetans world over enthusiastically engaged in rigorous debates and discussions on Sikyong candidates. These intense debates and discussions, in almost every household to social gatherings to both online and offline platforms, indicate progression in the nascent Tibetan democracy.
The scale of participation in the 2015 preliminary elections, both in numbers and intensity, demonstrates an impressive rise when compared with the 2011 election. Also impressive is the youthful demographics and natures of competition between the candidates.
Although their positions and agendas are somewhat divergent, incumbent Sikyong Dr. Lobsang Sangay, and Speaker of the CTA, Penpa Tsering – both advocates of the middle-way approach – are the only two finalists for the 20 March election. The discussions, debates and the election itself would have been more energised, interesting, and democratic, had the CEC not twisted the rules at the last minute and had allowed the third candidate, Lukar Jam Atsock – a former political prisoner and a Rangzen (independence) advocate vis-a-vis China – to campaign in the finals.
Although Atsock had garnered considerable support for his radical views, his intellectual depth, and his political savvy, he faced opposition from many for his stand and his alleged criticism of the Dalai Lama’s position of political compromise with China towards resolving the issue of Tibet. Regardless, the results of the preliminary polls suggest that incumbent Sikyong Sangay is likely to retain his post for another term; but his competitor, Tsering, is not far behind.
* Apa Lhamo
Research Officer, CRP, IPCS
E-mail: [email protected]