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Primary Elections show Tibetans want change, but continuity, too

November 19, 2010

By Bhuchung K. Tsering <>
November 17, 2010
On November 12, 2010 the Tibetan Election Commission announced the results of the primary elections held in October to determine candidates for the post of the Kalon Tripa (the highest executive authority and de facto head of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala) as well as members of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile.
The Election Commission has shortlisted six individuals with the highest votes as candidates for the Kalon Tripa (two of them from the United States), 50 names for each of the three traditional Tibetan provinces, and 10 names for the two posts that each of the Tibetan Buddhist and Bon traditions as well as the Tibetan communities in North America and Europe have. You can find a complete list of the names on the website of the Central Tibetan Administration.
>From the over 79,000 registered voters the Commission announced that 47,000 (around 61 per cent) individuals exercised their right to vote. Since the Nepalese authorities seized some of the ballot boxes from the Kathmandu area, and since the Bhutanese authorities did not allow the votes to be sent to Dharamsala, the Election Commission has decided to treat these votes as having gone to waste. This includes a little over 1000 votes from the Kathmandu area of Nepal and 613 votes from Bhutan.
The fact that there has been a sizable increase in the numbers of voter turnout indicates the special interest the elections had for the Tibetan people. There was widespread belief that the outcome of the elections this time would have a strong impact on the future course of the Tibetan movement.
Judging by the names of the individuals for the different posts, the Tibetan community wants both change and continuity, but leaning more towards change. The individual with the highest votes (with a good lead) for the post of the Kalon Tripa is Lobsang Sangay, who will be a change as he will be a newcomer to the Tibetan Administration system if he goes on to win in the final elections in March next year. In his campaign, including people who campaigned for him, he has projected the elections as being “among other things … a choice between the status quo and change.”
However, the other five names for the Kalon Tripa post (the next highest being Tenzin Namgyal Tethong) are all known entities who have served or are currently serving in different capacities in the Central Tibetan Administration. The fact that they find a place in the shortlist would certainly be an indication of the desire for continuity.
Among the names for the Tibetan parliament, over 35 names finding a place in each of the provincial shortlists are individuals who have not served before. Similarly, a majority of the names in the religious, North American and European constituencies are new.
Given the nature of the Tibetan election system the above will not be a true picture of the final political landscape. The individuals whose names are listed for the different posts will be given time to decide whether they want to stay or withdraw. Thereafter, some time in December or January next year, we will see a final list of candidates.
Leaving aside the challenge that the majority of Tibetans in Tibet cannot participate in such elections, the Tibetan community in exile has confronted very many challenges in their experiment with the democratic process for an entity that has the formal recognition only of Tibetans. The most obvious of these is the fact that the election process has to take place in a host country’s environment, whose understanding, consideration and respect for the system are essential for its smooth running. This became very clear this time with the developments in Nepal.
It is certainly an exciting time for Tibetan democracy. Even though currently we are seeing a lull in direct or indirect campaigning, without doubt things will change once the final list comes out. Going by how active people were prior to the primary elections, one should expect much more vigorous campaigning this time as the odds have been narrowed and candidates will be facing stiff competition.
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