MCLEOD GANJ, India, 16 July 2015
Nearly four years back, the Tibetan Prime Ministerial election drew unprecedented hype and attention around the world where ever Tibetan Diasporas were concentrated.
Even the southernmost part of the Indian city Chennai wasn’t spared the storms of the election. For the first time, Tibetan college students based in Chennai also partook in the 2011 Tibetan (Prime Ministerial and Parliamentary) Election. People’s minds refused not to be preoccupied with the wind of election. I still remember while working in Chennai, young Tibetan college students (who were in support of their candidate Dr Lobsang Sangay) wearing white T-shirts striped with “Katri Lobsang Sangay”, and interviewing student leaders there on their views about the election.
The Obamic season of Sangay
I was then among those who spoke in support of candidate ex-PM Tethong Tenzin Namgyal, given his experience and intellectualism. However, I didn’t rule out Dr Lobsang Sangay from serving the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). Around that time I was in favour of Dr Lobsang Sangay becoming Kalon (Minister) for Information and International Relations, to finally pave the way for him to become Sikyong in 2016 with much more understanding and experience of administration. This utopia didn’t materialize as Dr Sangay won against his nearest rival Tethong Tenzin Namgyal.
Back then it was a rising day of Obamic season for Dr Lobsang Sangay. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was already in semi-retirement stage as far as his political role was concerned, since the direct election of the Kalon Tripa in 2001. The 2011 Tibetan Election was both curious and worrisome. On the one hand you had the first-ever Harvard intellectual fellow debuting in the Tibetan election, with a youthful and charismatic face stealing the hearts of many youths and elderly. On the other hand, Tethong T Namgyal’s candidacy was being contested by many on various grounds of his past deeds and aristocratic lineage. The debate between the candidates went so deep and wide that it became one of the most talked-about and historic elections in exile history.
Why I called it an “Obamic season” was on account of his academic credentials and the luck that followed him in the contest. Even before election a wind was flowing. Dr Lobsang Sangay made an implicit speech in Chennai during the 4th Tibetan College Students’ Conference held there, saying “My final service of destination is Dharamshala and there is no doubt about that.”
Though the campaigns for both candidates emerged mainly from the West (as both candidates were then residents of the United States), it was East (mainly Tibetans in India) who helped to boost the election to such an unprecedented scale, and made Dr Lobsang Sangay the “Prime Minister” (later known as “Sikyong”), the Political Leader.
Who and what made it happen?
Who and what situations were responsible for making Dr Sangay the Prime Minister, defeating Tethong Tenzin Namgyal? First, the vote banks mainly were youths in the 21-39 age group, comprised of college students, monks, and nuns. For the young Tibetan college students, Dr Lobsang Sangay was a beacon, an icon, and an inspiration. Dr Sangay’s youthful appearance plus having a Harvard doctorate put him among the first place as the choice for their Prime Minister.
Furthermore, being young and accessible to youngsters, students’ eyes were filled with Dr Sangay’s academic credentials. What young, ardent, and studious college student wouldn’t want to imitate and follow Dr Sangay. Students like accessible leaders, and Dr Sangay was it both with his academic credentials and knack for connecting to youth.
As far as monks are concerned, though they could be conservative in a general sense, a specific situation tends to make them ponder otherwise. During the elections both the students’ and monks’ participation increased as compared to their 2006 electoral participation. Monks, who were and are one of the most active participants both inside and outside Tibet for the Tibetan freedom struggle, were also in search of an inspiring leader.
Prof Samdhong Rinpoche couldn’t be elected again due to the provisions of the Tibetan Charter, given his election for the post for two terms consecutively, unless related articles in the Charter are amended. And no one will, nor will Prof Samdhong Rinpoche, accept such an offer to amend that particular article in the Charter to fulfill the duties again as Prime Minister.
Hence, the only choices left were Dr Sangay, ex-Prime Minister Tethong Tenzin Namgyal, and reluctant ex-Minister Tashi Wangdi. Tashi Wangdi was unlikely to win due to his flip-flop and dilly-dally in announcing his candidacy, despite partaking in several of the public debates. Hence the only choice was between Dr Sangay, who has huge academic and youthful credentials, and the other, Tethong Tenzin Namgyal, a veteran politician, whose experience and charisma were forces to reckon with. However, in the final the monks and nuns decided, though not in landslide, on Dr Lobsang Sangay as their choice on account of his promising and convincing public talks.
Those of 40 plus also contributed a huge vote to Dr Lobsang Sangay. The elderly Tibetan voters would of course be more than happy to vote for young and educated people. Most of the elderly people were ex-service men, businessmen who have served in various Tibetan institutions. They didn’t much have educational opportunities, though they are far more spirited and nationalistic than us. They too must be looking for young and educated people and Dr Sangay presented himself on time as the most reliable and fitting candidate of the time.
Going by the institutions or organisations, it was NDPT who campaigned for Dr Lobsang Sangay to a great deal. Many of the NGOs, monastic institutions, and Tibetan colleges also endorsed him. There were few exceptions at the individual level who voted or campaigned for Tethong Tenzin Namgyal.
Let us finish with this background of the last election, and glance into this year’s Tibetan Election. When we say election for Sikyong is coming up, exile people tend to flash in their eyes the faces of Dr Lobsang Sangay, TPiE Speaker Penpa Tsering, Home Minister Gyari Dolma, Security Minister Dongchung Ngodup, ex-PM Tethong T Namgyal, ex-Minister Lobsang Nyandak, and even as far as Prof Samdhong Rinpoche and Gyari Lodi Gyaltsen.
The first preference among the Sikyong candidate must be Dr Lobsang Sangay, who can stand for a second term as per provisions in the Tibetan Charter. Given the historic atmosphere, he is likely to stand for and even win the second term as Sikyong. In 2006 when Prof Samdhong Rinpoche ran for a second term, nobody could stand as rival candidate given Rinpoche’s imminent win against any candidate. However, election wouldn’t be democratic nor would it be meaningful without a rival candidate. Thanks to former PM late Juchen Thupten Namgyal for ensuring the election turns democratic by standing as rival candidate despite his known position as loser. (It was a bold and most democratic move by Juchen Thupten Namgyal).
Word is going around the grapevine this year about the possible aspirants standing for Sikyong. Among the front-running names are Sikyong Dr Lobsang Sangay and TPiE Speaker Penpa Tsering. However, a new candidate sprang up out of the blue even before the Election Commissioners announced the dates for preliminary and the final rounds of elections in the form of Mr Tashi Wangdu, the CEO of the Federation of Tibetan Cooperatives.
Tashi Wangdu was said to be among the top supporters of Dr Sangay in the last 2011 election. This time one of the top supporters of Dr Sangay standing directly for Sikyong Election despite Dr Sangay having second term option is something we need to think of.
The National Democratic Party of Tibet is the only surviving and functioning political party that has been actively partaking in the elections by sending candidates for the Sikyong and the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile. Apart from each province and other regional community producing their candidates, NDPT’s list is much awaited for being the most outspoken organisation as a political party. During its press conference a month ago, NDPT announced incumbent Sikyong Dr Lobsang Sangay and TPiE Speaker Penpa Tsering as 2016 Sikyong Candidates. We are yet to see other Province Communities and other regional communities who are likely to produce their own candidates for Sikyong apart from Parliamentary candidates.
One striking transformation in the exile electoral history is that as the leadership role moves to second-rung younger generations, it is quietly clear that exile-born leaders who have not even seen their motherland are likely to take over the political leadership of the Tibetan struggle. This is an encouraging sign of continuation of the Tibetan struggle, and at the same time the fruit of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s decades-long dream of reclaiming freedom through education and non-violence.
Women in the election
However, one discouraging sign of space for improvement in political electoral is the near-absence of any convincing lady candidate in the last five decades who could occupy the Sikyong seat. Only a few Tibetan women have even served in the Cabinet as ministers, such as Jetsun Pema, Rinchen Khando, and Taklha Yangkyi (and all are associated with His Holiness the Dalai Lama). In this 14th Kashag (Cabinet) headed by Sikyong Dr Lobsang Sangay, there are two women: Gyari Dolma, a long-time Tibetan Parliamentarian and even two-time deputy Speaker of TPiE, and Dikki Chhoyang, a Canadian resident.
In the 2011 general election, Gyari Dolma, the most prominent and visible face of woman in the exile Tibetan community, stood in the preliminary round but retreated in the final election. This time too she is unlikely to contest even though some people or organisations might stand in support of her. Surprisingly, social media, which is a most-used medium of communication, continue to produce several candidates for Sikyong in the likes of “2016 Sikyong Dikky Chhoyang”, “2016 Sikyong Dr Lobsang Sangay” and even “2016 Sikyong for Penpa Tsering”.
Unlike the last election, if public debates are to be had, Dr Lobsang Sangay will have to provide more answers to the people of what his accomplishments or achievements are, rather than what he can promise to do. People are more informed if not educated about issues facing Tibetans in exile, and therefore any candidate can’t have an easy win without facing the public.
The largest vote banks in terms of territory include settlements like Mundgod, Bylakupee, Ladakh, Bir, Dharamshala, and the combination of North-East Tibetan settlements. In terms of institutions, monasteries, NGOs, and provincial and regional associations and communities are going to form major vote banks by influence or clout.
Unless some surprise candidate emerges, one of the two official candidates supported by NDPT and other provincial and regional communities are likely to win. The battle is between the Darjeeling-born Harvardian Dr Lobsang Sangay, and Bylakuppee-born MCCian Speaker Penpa Tsering, both of whom are young and most appealing at this time. Dr Sangay looks quite confident, however whoever comes as rival candidate must be a bold man to contest. Whom I vote for will remain a secret.
About the author
Pam D Tenzin, alias Doring Tenzin Phuntsok, has an M Phil in Political Science and was General Secretary of NDPT Central.