Tibetan elections in exile go off with some hitches

The Tibetan diaspora voted for a new parliament and head of government. Two were running for the top government job, including the incumbent and a former parliamentary speaker. Almost 90,000 Tibetans took part in the process in more than ten countries. However, some have criticised the process, and the exclusion of those who "have no money to spend." Mystery still surrounds the vote of Tibetans in Chinese provinces.

Dharamsala (AsiaNews) – Thousands of Tibetans went to the polls to elect the 15th head of the Kashag (Tibetan government-in-exile) and the 45 members of the 16th Tibetan Parliament.

Some 88,000 voters in the diaspora registered at the election office in Dharamsala, casting their ballots in 13 different countries.

At attempt was made initially to have Tibetans in Tibet itself and neighbouring Chinese provinces like Gansu take part in the voting, but the logistics of bringing the ballots to India made the process impossible.

After a set of primaries in October 2015, two candidates vied for the top post.

Penpa Tsering, 49, the challenger, is a two-term speaker of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile. He was born in India, in the heart of the Tibetan diaspora.

Highly critical of mainland China, he has promised to continue the fight against self-immolations in Tibet.

Lobsang Sangay, 48, is the incumbent Tibetan prime minister. Before his election in April 2011, he spent 15 years teaching law at Harvard University.

He is the third Tibetan prime minister elected democratically since 2001, but the first exercising the powers once traditionally vested in the Dalai Lama. The leader of Tibetan Buddhism gave up all his temporal duties in 2011.

Lobsang said he wants to open a line of communication with China, the only path to improve the situation in Tibet.

Samdhong Rinpoche, a former prime minister, did not cast his vote, expressing his annoyance with the election process. For him, “these elections are not being fought on Tibetan ethics.”

His statement reflects the position of the candidate who came in third in the primaries, Lukar Jam Atsok, a former political prisoner in China.

The day after the primary on 18 October 2015, the Tibetan Election Commission (ETC) announced a new rule whereby only the two top candidates could take part in the runoff.

A long letter to the Tibetan Policy Review criticised the incumbent government for trying to maintain the status quo.

“Atsok,” it said, “has repeatedly stated that his vision includes Tibet’s independence from China, not the cultural autonomy preached by the Dalai Lama and the two contenders left in the race. This can be frightening, but in a real democracy, every opinion should be respected and should have the opportunity to be heard. Eliminating controversial candidates is not democratic."

A group of 27 long-time Tibet supporters wrote an open letter, also expressing their concern over the ETC’s change of rules, and such “undemocratic” tactics.

The signatories include Students for Free Tibet, the former chairman of the International Campaign for Tibet as well as Ismael Moreno, a Spanish judge who opened a case against former Communist leader Hu Jintao for his role in the bloody crackdown in Tibet in 1989.

However, many in the Tibetan diaspora still feel pride for the opportunity to vote. “The election is really important. It is a basic right of a citizen to vote and we take this opportunity as a blessing,” said Sonam, a 22-year-old Tibetan student in Nepal.