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The most unique election: Tibetans around the world vote for new Parliament

Soumya Shankar | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:59 IST

Unique election

  • On 20 March, around 1.5 lakh Tibetan refugees in 30 countries will vote for a new PM
  • People vote according to the provinces they were ousted from - all at the same time

Difference of opinion

  • Most Tibetans still follow the Dalai Lama\'s Middle Way Approach, asking for autonomy from China
  • However, some activists are pushing for complete freedom

More in the story

  • How the Tibetan election commission conducts the election
  • What is the Dalai Lama\'s Middle Way Approach? Breaking down its salient points

On 20 March, around 1.5 lakh Tibetan refugees scattered across 30 countries will cast their votes to elect the Sikyong - the Tibetan Prime Minister - in what may be considered the most distinct democratic exercise in the world. Its scale and scope remains unprecedented.

The Sikyong is the leader of the Dharamsala-based Central Tibetan Administration, also known as the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile, which is the unicameral and highest legislative organ of the Tibetan polity.

Also read - Tibetan Parliament in exile to hold its preliminary elections from tomorrow

In 1949, the People's Liberation Army of China marched into Tibet's northeastern provinces of Kham and Amdo, thus setting in motion the forcible occupation of the country, which culminated in the flight of its young leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to India, and the crushing of the Tibetan National Uprising in March 1959.

The Dalai Lama was followed by some 80,000 Tibetans, who sought refuge in India, Nepal and Bhutan, and later spread to other parts of the world. Currently, the Tibetan exile population is over 1,45,150 of which about 1,01,242 are based in India.

Tibetan people recognise the CTA as their sole legitimate government: not just of those in exile, but also the 98% of the population residing in the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China.

Division of seats

The Tibetan Parliament-in-exile derives its members or chitues from the three regions of Tibet: “-Tsang, Kham and Amdo, which have 10 seats each.

Tibetan Buddhist schools, Gelug, Nyingma, Sakya and Kagyu, as well as the pre-Buddhist tradition, have two seats each.

Around 1.5 lakh Tibetan refugees scattered across 30 countries will vote for a new PM today

Tibetans in Europe and North America have two seats each, while Tibetans in Australia and the rest of Asia together have one seat, from this time onwards.

After setting up the Constitution and Parliament, in order to further push the idea of democratisation, in 2006, the Dalai Lama relinquished his privilege of selecting up to three persons directly to the Parliament.

How the remarkable election is held

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of electing a government-in-exile is this: the entire eligible electorate scattered across 30 nations queues and votes for the province from which they were ousted - all this at the same time and on the same day across various polling stations in the world.

How this massive electoral exercise is carried out is an intriguing political phenomenon.

The Tibetan Election Commission (EC), the unit charged with overseeing and implementing elections-in-exile, remains challenged with limited human and financial resources. Armed with only a small staff and insufficient resources, the EC oversees 87,000-plus voter registrations, and conducts primary and final elections in over 30 countries.

People around the world vote at the same time according to the province from where they were ousted

All Tibetans above the age of 18 have passive voting rights, while those above 25 have active voting rights, as long as they are in possession of a Green Book (tax and identity card). 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 person, one vote'.

It must be noted that the CTA will have to dissolve its power the day Tibet becomes 'free'.

Today, the CTA functions as a veritable government, and has all the attributes of a free democratic government. However, not everybody agrees.

Also read - China and Pak just finished an air drill in Tibet; what are the lessons for India?

The call for freedom

The 2016 Tibetan Parliament election is a watershed moment in itself. After the devolution of the Dalai Lama's political responsibilities to the democratically-elected leadership in 2011, the future of Tibetan politics is principally being moulded and shaped by the Kashang - the council of ministers and the Parliament-in-exile.

This year, with the near-completion of 60 years of exile and the freedom struggle, members of the diaspora are eagerly waiting for the next crucial moment in Tibetan history. The population has been vehemently engaging in the election debate through the media and social media.

Even though the voter turnout has not been exemplary recently - the last elections saw a total of 53% of eligible voters cast their ballots - the 2016 elections have already kicked up a debate with the nomination of Lukar Jam, who advocated 'Rangzen' or the freedom of Tibet. Jam raked in enough votes to finish third in the preliminary rounds, but not enough to stand for the finals.

The issue of Tibetan independence is not in the mainstream. It's mostly limited to activists & youth

The open advocacy of Rangzen, unprecedented in Tibetan politics, created strong ripples in the popular mood, especially in the minds of the young electorate.

However, the dominant political line of the Tibetan majority was and will remain the 'Middle Way Approach', crafted by the Dalai Lama himself. To go against it is to go against His Holiness.

he Middle Way Approach seeks autonomy, but leaves out the idea of independence. Advocates of this approach talk about

- The respect for the human rights of the Tibetan people

- Abandonment of the policy of transferring ethnic Chinese into Tibet

- Turning Tibet into a demilitarised zone of non-violence

- Protecting and restoring Tibet's natural environment

- And the commencement of negotiations on the future status of Tibet.

The present Sikyong, Harvard-educated legal scholar Lobsang Sangay, and his competitor, Penpa Tsering, are both Middle Way advocates seeking Tibetan autonomy within the framework of Chinese Constitution.

The present fight, therefore is based on domestic concerns - education, Kalchakra timings, welfare of the population in exile, etc. The issue of Rangzen, or Tibetan independence, meanwhile, remains out of the electoral mainstream, mostly limited to activists and the youth.

"What is going on at the moment within the commuity is more out of respect for His Holiness. An overwhelming majority of Tibetan people love and respect the Dalai Lama as their spiritual and political leader. The focus on autonomy is because His Holiness speaks for autonomy. Mostly out of respect for His Holiness, people are quiet about independence. Deep in their hearts, all Tibetans want independence. That is our reality," explains Tenzin Tsundue, a poet and Rangzen activist.

Tsundue says that while the Sikyong does not necessarily reflect the political stand of the people as much as the administrative, the fire of freedom burns bright within the hearts of the exiled community.

"All 144 self-immolations in Tibet have spoken for freedom of Tibet, and the return of the Dalai Lama. What the government-in-exile stands for is more of political posturing than the goal of the struggle per se. The Sikyong will keep the people united, sustain the struggle, bring in better administration in five years - these are more immediate issues. The goal of independence, though, is a long-term fight."

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First published: 19 March 2016, 11:15 IST
Soumya Shankar @shankarmya

A correspondent with Catch, Soumya covers politics, social issues, education, art, culture and cinema. A lamenter and celebrator of the human condition, she hopes to live long enough to witness the next big leap in human evolution or the ultimate alien takeover of the world.