DHARAMSALA, India: Tens of thousands of exiled Tibetans began voting Sunday to elect a new leader 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 globe gear up to vote, those in the picturesque Indian hill town of Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama lives, started lining up at booths at 9 a.m. (0330 GMT) to elect their next leader of the government-in-exile.
The position of prime minister in exile was a low-profile role before the 80-year-old Tibetan spiritual leader devolved power in an attempt to lessen his own totemic status and secure the movement’s future after his death.
The Dalai Lama announced his decision in March 2011, days before the election of the incumbent prime minister — or Sikyong — Lobsang Sangay, who is standing again.
The 48-year-old Harvard-educated former academic is regarded as the front-runner, having already beaten off three of the other four candidates in a first round of voting last October.
Both he and his one remaining opponent, Penpa Tsering, 49, favor the “middle way” approach of the Dalai Lama that advocates seeking greater autonomy for Tibet through peaceful means.
In all, 88,000 Tibetans in 13 countries from Australia to the United States are registered to cast ballots for a prime minister and the 44-member parliament-in-exile.
Many voters, like Sangay, have lived all their lives in exile and never visited Tibet.
Another candidate, Lukar Jam Atsok, spent time as a political prisoner in China and had threatened to make waves with his more aggressive policy of advocating for complete independence from China.
He was eliminated after coming third in the first round, a decision his supporters say was unfair given that three candidates were allowed through to the second round of voting in the 2011 polls.
On policy, there is relatively little to choose between 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 Sangay, who got a boost in preliminary elections held in October that showed him winning 30,500 votes while Tsering trail behind with 10,732 and Jam with some 2,550 votes.
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, a 55-year-old woman who did not give her full name.
Shadow of the Dalai Lama
Tsering was born in India and has served in the Tibetan parliament-in-exile based in Dharamsala for 10 years, where he is currently the speaker.
Whoever prevails can expect to remain in the shadow of the 80-year-old Dalai Lama, a Nobel peace laureate who continues to be the global figurehead for Tibetans around the world.
The Himalayan hill town has been home in exile to him and thousands of Tibetan refugees since fleeing Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
He remains the most powerful rallying point for Tibetans, both in exile and in their homeland.
Nonetheless, many exiles said they felt it was important to exercise their 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 who did not give her full name.
She expressed hopes the Nepal government would allow voting to go ahead after confiscating ballot boxes in 2011, apparently under pressure from neighboring China.
“We are political refugees and since they have allowed us to live here, they should not stop us from voting. But I worry they may interfere,” she said.
China has widely been seen as waiting for the Dalai Lama’s death, believing that the movement for Tibetan rights would not survive without its charismatic and globally famous leader.