Tibetans in Exile Go to Polls in Final Round of Votes for Political Leader
More than 83,000 exile Tibetans in 26 countries around the world turn out to vote in an exercise in democracy denied to Tibetans living under Chinese rule.
More than 83,000 Tibetans living in 26 countries around the world went to the polls on Sunday to cast their ballots in a third and final round of voting for political leader, or Sikyong, of Tibet’s Dharamsala-based exile government the Central Tibetan Administration, with final results to be announced on May 14.
Penpa Tsering, a former speaker of Tibet’s exile parliament, and Aukatsang Kelsang Dorjee, a former representative of Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, are the frontrunners in the current race after prevailing in two rounds of earlier voting.
In exit polls conducted by RFA with 961 voters in India, the U.S., Canada, and Europe, 547 said they had voted for Penpa Tsering, with 414 saying they had voted for Aukatsang Kelsang Dorjee, suggesting the race is close.
Lobsang Sangay, a Harvard-trained scholar of law, has served two consecutive five-year terms as Sikyong, an office filled by candidates elected since 2011 by popular vote, and will leave that post when his present term expires in May.
The May 14 election results will also seat 45 members of the exile Tibetan parliament in its new, seventeenth session, with 10 candidates representing each of Tibet’s three traditional provinces—U-tsang, Kham, and Amdo—and two representatives from each of Tibet’s four major schools of Buddhism and the pre-Buddhist Bon religion.
Two members will also be voted in to represent each of the exile Tibetan communities in North and South America and Europe, and one from Australia and Asia, excluding India, Nepal, and Bhutan. The Tibetan diaspora is estimated to include about 150,000 people living in 40 countries, mainly India, Nepal, North America, and in Europe.
Despite the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tibetans turned out in large numbers to register and vote. But in Nepal—a country politically and economically close to China where Tibetan issues are sensitive—police were deployed at around 30 Tibetan monasteries and two schools to discourage participation.
“The Nepalese government has always tried to sabotage Tibetan elections,” a Tibetan resident of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu told RFA’s Tibetan Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“In addition to uniformed police, there were also many officials in plainclothes deployed around the city, which made it difficult to carry out the voting smoothly,” he added.
Tibetans are forbidden by Nepal to vote in exile elections, but residents in remote areas of the country conducted their own polling in secret a week before, sources told RFA.
Tibetans go to the polls in Strasbourg, France, April 11, 2021. Photo sent to RFA
In France, where a nationwide COVID lockdown is in effect, the country’s Tibetan community nevertheless secured special permission to hold elections on April 11, Paris resident Lobsang Khedup said.
“Because of the lockdown here in France, people need a valid reason to travel more than 10 kilometers from their home, but our local Tibetan Election Commission was able to get a special letter permitting us to conduct the election anyway,” Khedup said.
In Dharamsala, India, the seat of Tibet’s exile government, voters cast their ballots in 16 different polling booths, while in northwestern India’s region of Ladakh, voter turnout was higher in the final round than in previous rounds, Tsetan Wangchuk, the local election commissioner in Ladakh’s city of Leh, said.
“We’ve seen a greater number of voters turn out for this final election, so I feel that when there is more participation like this from the public, it means people are taking more responsibility,” Wangchuk said.
“Voters are very observant, and there seems to be a remarkable level of alertness among the public now about their choices of candidates, which wasn’t the case in earlier days,” said Lobsang Jinpa, a former private secretary in the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, now living in Virginia in the United States.
Meanwhile, in New York, 101-year-old Gyaltsen Choden, a retired civil servant in the exile government, was escorted to the polls by his son.
“My father, who has devoted his entire life to the service of the Tibetan government in exile, insisted on voting today, as Tibetans inside Tibet don’t have the freedom to vote,” the younger man said. “It is a privilege to be able to elect our own leaders, so we escorted him here today.”
Commenting on the day’s voting, the outgoing Sikyong Lobsang Sangay said that Tibet’s exercise of democracy in exile “reflects the true aspirations of our brothers and sisters in Tibet.”
“In this way, we are sending a message directly to Beijing that while they do not have democracy themselves or grant freedom to Tibetans in Tibet, we Tibetans living in exile have been given the gift of democracy under the great leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.”
Formerly an independent nation, Tibet was invaded and incorporated into China by force 70 years ago, following which the Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers fled into exile in India and other countries around the world.
Divisions persist in the Tibetan exile community over how best to advance the rights and freedoms of Tibetans living in China, with some calling for a restoration of the independence lost when Chinese troops marched into Tibet in 1950.
The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) and the Dalai Lama have instead adopted a policy approach called the Middle Way, which accepts Tibet’s status as a part of China but urges greater cultural and religious freedom, including strengthened language rights, for Tibetans living under Beijing’s rule.
Both frontrunners in the current contest for Sikyong support the Middle Way.
Reported by RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Tenzin Dickyi. Written in English by Richard Finney.