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Missing the Big Picture?: A Comment on Lobsang Sangay's "Kalon Tripa Election Reform"

August 1, 2010

Editorial Board
The Tibetan Political Review (TPR)
July 30, 2010

As the 2011 Kalon Tripa election nears, Tibetans
need to seriously evaluate the candidates so that
their decision is well-informed.  As the
Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political Review,
we have not committed to supporting any
candidate.  In order to further the spirit of
democratic debate, we plan to comment on and
critique the policy platforms of the individuals
nominated as Kalon Tripa candidates, toughly but
fairly.  We do this not as any sort of "experts"
but simply as Tibetans.  In this article, we turn to Dr. Lobsang Sangay.

It was with interest that we read Lobsang-la’s
February 23, 2010 article, "Kalon Tripa Election
Reform.:  The essence of Lobsang-la’s article is
that the Tibetan voting process should be made
easier. As we discuss below, some of his
suggestions are good, but some seem politically
naïve.  His focus on process also ignores the big
picture of substance, which suggests that
Lobsang-la has not yet displayed the political
maturity and vision necessary to be Kalon Tripa.

I.  Suggestions on Process: the Good and the Bad

The problem that Lobsang-la’s article chooses to
tackle is the historically low voter turnout
among the Tibetan electorate.  We critique his
article based on how well it addresses this problem.

Most Tibetans will agree that the goal of a
democracy should be to maximize voter
participation, with the caveat being the need to
prevent voter fraud and preserve the legitimacy
of election results.  Within this framework,
Lobsang-la raises both good and bad ideas.

A.  Registration Processes: A 2 Out of 3

With respect to its first point -- registration
processes -- the article suggests eliminating
registration requirements.  This presents a
problem because the risk of voter fraud increases
dramatically without voter rolls.  Lobsang-la
admits that this proposal is “somewhat radical,”
and for good reason.  Without a voter
registration list, there is greater risk of
irregular procedures such as double-voting or
voting under false identities.  (This is not the
kind of increased voter participation anyone should want!)

Lobsang-la makes a better suggestion on early and
same-day voter registration.  There is no good
reason why, in the modern world, voter
registration needs to close two months before an
election.  Once a voter has proven their identity
and eligibility, they should be permitted to vote
the same day.  On this point, we agree with Lobsang-la.

We also think Lobsang-la is has an interesting
idea when he advocates significantly lowering the
fee for the Rangzen Lakhdeb/Gyalthon Mangul for
people with financial need.  Ideally, the right
to vote should not be dependent on any sort of a
“poll tax.”  Given that Tibet’s exiled government
does not have the same power to tax income as a
typical government, it may not be feasible to
entirely eliminate these fees.  Lobsang-la strikes the proper balance here.

B.  Voting Processes: A 1 Out of 3

With respect to the article’s second point "
voting processes " Lobsang-la’s suggestions are
mail-in ballots, e-ballots, and proxy
ballots.  Here, only one out of three ideas are well-founded.

Mail-in ballots are a good idea, and are used
throughout the democratic world.  Provided there
are controls in place over the distribution of
ballots and verification of eligibility of the
returned ones, mail-in ballots can serve to
dramatically increase voter participation.

E-ballots, however, present a serious problem in
the form of cyber-security.  As any Tibetan who
is involved in the struggle knows well, there is
a swarm of specially-designed computer viruses
emanating out of Chinese cyber-war laboratories
directed against the Tibet movement.  It would
take just one virus, just one slip-up on the
Election Commission computers, just one Chinese
hacker to seriously compromise our election
results.  We cannot afford to ignore this serious
threat.  Is this major risk worth the marginal
gain in voter participation?  We do not believe
so.  The e-ballot proposal seems ill-conceived in
light of China’s demonstrated ability to hack the
Tibetan government-in-exile’s computers.

Proxy voting presents another problem, this time
to the principles of the secret ballot and
"one-person, one-vote.”  These principles are
imperiled when a voter delegates his or her vote
to another person.  There is no way of knowing
whether a delegation is voluntary, nor can one
ensure that the delegate will vote according the voter’s wish.

For example, one need only consider an abused
spouse, dependent parent, or adult child being
intimidated into allowing an abusive head of
household to cast a proxy ballot on their
behalf.  The Kalon Tripa should be especially
concerned with helping the most vulnerable
members of the society.  Unfortunately,
Lobsang-la’s proposal would do the
opposite.  Lobsang-la surely does not intend
this, which means instead that his proposal was
not thought out from a practical standpoint.

C.  The Theory: Unexplained and Divorced From Reality

Lobsang-la frames the above proposals through the
theory of what he refers to as "law and
behavioral economics.”  Actually, Professor Cass
Sunstein, who developed this theory, calls it
“behavioral law and economics,” being an offshoot
of a school known as “law and economics.”   It
seeks to use economics and psychology to
determine how laws can be structured to achieve
particular goals by essentially recognizing
people’s predictable irrationality.  This theory
can be applied to the goal of increasing voter
turnout by changing the rules to make voting easier.

We would have preferred that Lobsang-la explain
how this theory shaped his proposals rather than
simply cite it without explanation.  It is
possible that the linkage is self-evident in
Lobsang-la’s mind.  However, a good leader brings
people along by persuasion, so he or she needs
the ability to explain their ideas to the electorate.

We are also concerned that Lobsang-la might not
be properly applying his chosen theory to the
real world.  We believe it is important to temper
academic theory with an understanding of how
particular proposals might work in reality (like
e-ballots being hacked).  It is important not to
be so enamored with an academic theory that one
loses perspective.  Our next Kalon Tripa must not
be a political novice who is unable to mix theory with reality.

II.  Focusing on Process Misses the Big Picture of Substance

Taking a step back, Lobsang-la’s article tries to
solve the problem of low Tibetan voter
participation.  In this respect, unfortunately,
it falls short.  It prescribes small-scale
procedural tweaks; what is really called for is
addressing the big-picture issues facing the
nation to give voters a meaningful choice in this election.

In diagnosing the problem of low voter turnout,
Lobsang-la asserts that there has been a
"collective failure on the part of the government
and the people.”  He says that the people have
become “complacent.”  Is this accurate?  We do
not believe so.  Anyone who has spent time in a
Tibetan tea-house, or debating Tibetan politics
over beers, knows that Tibetan voters are not
exactly “complacent.”  There are many exciting
ideas, many frustrations, and many strong patriotic feelings.

Why does this "sha-tsa" not translate into action
through the ballot box?  Low voter turnout should
not be attributed to the failure or complacency
of the Tibetan people.  Rather, it should be
attributed to the fact that, in a democracy,
elections have to be about something in order to mean anything.

Voters are not foolish.  When an election makes a
difference in their lives, they will vote (e.g.
the high turnout in the 2008 United States
presidential election.)  On the other hand, when
elections will not make a significant difference,
voter turnout will be predictably low.  This is
regardless of procedural changes like
e-ballots.  Voters have to care in order to vote, no matter the voting process.

Currently elections do not appear to make much of
a difference in how Tibet’s government-in-exile
functions, so Tibetan elections become about
personality, not policy. Tibetans discuss which
candidate is more “patriotic” or “honest,” but
not what that candidate’s positions are on the
major issues facing the nation, or whether that
candidate has the professional qualifications to
manage the government bureaucracy.  Lobsang-la’s
prescription of procedural reforms will not
address this larger substantive problem.

What are the substantive issues facing the
nation?  There are many, and the Kalon Tripa
candidates must not be silent on them.

First, of course, is the direction the government
will take with respect to the Middle Way policy
in the face of repeated rejections by the Chinese
government.  With Samdhong Rinpoche stating that
further concessions on the Tibetan side are
impossible, and with the Chinese side flatly
rejecting any movement on their end, it appears
that the Middle Way is at an impasse.

We would like to hear how candidate Lobsang-la
would deal with this impasse.  How would he
advance Tibet’s political cause while keeping his
eyes on the ultimate goal of a Tibet by and for
Tibetans?  On one hand, he serves on the
negotiation task force.  On the other hand, he
recently wrote approvingly about Tibetans’ wish
to “witness the unfurling of our national flag…
on the rooftop of the Potala Palace.”  This
candidate should take the opportunity to explain his position to the voters.

There are other critical issues that are not yet
being addressed in the Tibetan political
discourse:  How will the next Kalon Tripa counter
Chinese subterfuge over the Dalai Lama’s next
reincarnation?  What will he or she do about
improving the quality of Tibetan education and
the economic situation in the settlements?  How
will the Kalon Tripa improve standards in the
Tibetan civil service, which requires making
entry, compensation, and advancement more
competitive?  What about ways the government’s
financial base can be strengthened?  How will the
candidate view and shape Tibetan immigration to
the West?  Will the candidate promote any changes
in how Tibetan democracy is structured, including
how chitues are selected and what role political parties should have?

These are all big-picture issues that, so far,
have not been addressed by the potential
candidates for Kalon Tripa.  Therefore, it is not
fair for Lobsang-la to blame the voters for
complacency, when the potential candidates have
given the voters little to be excited about.

III.  What Does His Article Tell Us About the Potential Candidate?

It is possible to draw some preliminary
conclusions about this candidate from his article.

A.  Questions of Political Maturity

First, this candidate has not yet shown an
ability to diagnose political problems and
develop effective cures.  This candidate chose to
address the issue of low voter turnout.  However,
he proposes procedural tweaks rather than
necessary big picture solutions.  Moreover, of
those insufficient tweaks, some are politically
naïve or poorly thought through. Tibetans do not
need to be reminded that the nation is at a
critical juncture, especially with His Holiness’
advancing age and stated desire to retire.  There
are many “big picture” issues that need serious
engagement and plans.  Tibetans need a Kalon
Tripa with vision and political maturity.

B.  Questions of Sincere Idealism

Second, Tibetans need a Kalon Tripa whose
leadership will inspire the best in the Tibetan
people.  That leader must encourage idealism,
fight cynicism, and deftly meld the highest
principles with the realism necessary to get
things done.  In that respect, we are bothered by
Lobsang-la’s argument that Tibetans should
embrace democracy to “directly challenge Zhu
Weiqun and the Chinese government.”

Tibetan democracy is about the political future
of the Tibetan nation.  Tibetans should not
define themselves simply in opposition to their
enemies, especially people as vile as Zhu.  That only drags Tibetans down.

Tibet is presently in an existential struggle
with the People’s Republic of China, but
democratization must be undertaken for its own
merits, not as a cheap public relations
tool.  One day when Tibetans regain their
homeland, democracy must be about the highest
ideals of freedom, not a tainted political weapon
against some long-forgotten
hatemonger.  Lobsang-la appears to lose sight of that.

C.  Questions of Nuanced Thinking and Ability to Unify

Third, we are troubled by Lobsang-la’s invocation
of former President George Bush’s formulation of
either being “with us or against us.”  President
Bush did immense damage to unity and goodwill
among the American people, and people worldwide,
by insinuating that anyone who disagreed with him
was on the side of the “evildoers.”  The last
thing Tibetans need is a Kalon Tripa who adopts a
simplistic, black-and-white worldview.

IV.  Conclusion

In conclusion, Lobsang-la has wrongly suggested
that democracy is a public relations tool, rather
than a higher principle in its own right.  He has
unthinkingly or – even worse – purposefully
invoked a cynical and simplistic worldview.  And
he has not shown an ability to diagnose the
big-picture issues that the Tibetan nation must
deal with.  On technical issues that he focuses
on, he has some good ideas.  But other ideas
display an undue emphasis on abstract theory and
a lack of real-world political experience.

Lobsang-la tells us in his article’s
autobiographical blurb that he "earned Ph.D.
degree and became not only the first among six
million Tibetans but also from Himalayan region
including Bhutan, Nepal and Mongolia.”  But
serving in the highest elected office of the
Tibetan nation requires more than academic
qualities divorced from the big picture and
on-the-ground realities.  It also requires
political adeptness, principled idealism, and
political vision.  The next Kalon Tripa will need
all of these qualities to lead the Tibetan people.
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