DHARAMSALA, INDIA // Tens of thousands of exiled Tibetans voted on Sunday for a new prime minister tasked with sustaining their struggle for greater autonomy in their Chinese-ruled homeland as the Dalai Lama retreats from the political frontline.
While Tibetans from across the world were set to vote, those in the picturesque Indian hill town of Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama lives started lining up at booths at 9.00am local time (7.30am UAE time) to elect the next leader of the government-in-exile.
Dharamsala is a town in India’s Himalayan foothills where a community of Tibetans live in exile with the Dalai Lama, hoping for resumption of talks with China.
The second such election follows a decision by the charismatic monk, an 80-year-old Nobel Peace Laureate, to relinquish his political authority and vest it in a democratic system that could outlast him.
China does not recognise the government that represents nearly 100,000 exiled Tibetans living in around 30 countries including India, Nepal, Canada and the United States.
Election results will be out between April 27 and 28, with more than half of the 90,377 eligible voters expected to exercise their franchise, according to the election commission.
The post of prime minister in exile was a low-profile role before the Tibetan spiritual leader devolved power in an attempt to lessen his own totemic status and foster a democratic setup to keep Tibet’s freedom movement alive after his death.
“Though His Holiness the Dalai Lama remains our leader of the nation in terms of guiding us in solving the Tibet issue, it is important that we vote and elect our political leader,” a 45-year-old monk, Jamyang, said after casting his vote.
The Sikyong, or elected leader, will be solely responsible for political and diplomatic decisions.
The Dalai Lama announced his decision in March 2011, just days before the election of the incumbent prime minister Lobsang Sangay, 48, who is standing again.
“With regard to dialogue with China, we have been making initiatives, efforts,” said Mr Sangay, the incumbent Sikyong, after casting his vote. “It takes two to clap. Our side is willing and ready and as soon as the Chinese give us the positive sign, we will be ready to take it further.”
The Harvard-educated former academic is regarded as the front-runner, having already beaten off three of the four other candidates in a first round of voting last October.
Both he and his one remaining opponent, Penpa Tsering, 49, favour the “middle way” approach of the Dalai Lama that advocates seeking greater autonomy for Tibet peacefully.
In all, 88,000 Tibetans in 13 countries from Australia to the US are registered to cast ballots for a prime minister and the 44-member parliament-in-exile.
Many voters, like Mr Sangay, have lived all their lives in exile and never visited Tibet.
One of the eliminated candidates, Lukar Jam Atsok, spent time as a political prisoner in China and had threatened to make waves with his more aggressive policy of advocating complete independence.
On policy, there is relatively little to choose between Mr Sangay and his remaining opponent, and opinions on the streets of Dharamsala were mixed in the run-up to Sunday’s vote.
Many said they would stick with Mr Sangay. But some who voted for him in 2011 said they had been disappointed by his performance in office.
“I will vote for Penpa Tsering, who has decades of experience serving in the Tibetan government in exile and in the Tibetan community. He will have more substance,” said Lhadon, 55, a woman who did not give her full name.
Concern about the Dalai Lama’s health, after his admission to a US hospital this year for treatment, has reinforced the importance of the vote in keeping the issue of Tibet alive.
* Agence France-Presse and Reuters