Arbitrary dance of Tibetan democracy

Tashi Shitsetsang

Tashi Shitsetsang

By Tashi Shitsetsang

ZURICH, Switzerland, 8 November 2015

The preliminary 2016 elections for candidates for Sikyong (Tibetan political leader) and members of the 16th Tibetan Parliament in Exile recently took place across the globe. I felt very excited to use my rights as a Tibetan Green Book holder for the first time. I was ready to finally embrace our democracy. But what awaited me was truly shocking and slightly disappointing. Heavy imputations, vague rules and regulations, and arbitrary changes, brought a lot of confusion and debate among the Tibetan community in exile.

The open letter to the Sikyong, Kashag and Election Commissioner of the CTA

On 13 October 2015, before the elections even started, an open letter1 in which 27 Tibet support groups raised their concerns over the procedures of the 2016 elections, went viral. They brought up several issues, including the Election Commissioner (EC) turning a blind eye on the complaint “alleging that an incumbent candidate is violating the Election Commission’s prohibition on using official platforms for campaign purposes.”

In an interview with Voice of Tibet on 17 October 20152, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sonam Choephel Shosur stated that the Election Commission (EC) would only investigate such cases, if evidence was provided to them. Moreover, the EC responded that they could not observe all noncompliance, which, like the open letter said, “raises the troubling possibility of selective enforcement.”

Another topic was the provision of space for arbitrary interpretation through vague rules. When reading the electoral rules and regulations, it immediately stands out that the articles can be interpreted in several ways.

Rules on campaign expenditure

Article 25(9a) in the electoral rules and regulations states “The maximum expenditure allowance for each Sikyong candidate is eight lakh Indian rupees (Rs 800,000), whereas the maximum expenditure allowance for each MP candidate is three lakhs Indian rupees (Rs 300,000).”3 Compliance with this is nearly impossible, considering the fact that for example Sikyong candidates have to travel all around the world for their campaign within that budget. However these limits are a good attempt at fairness and transparency.

But, certain organisations that want to financially support a candidate are free from these restrictions. The Asia Democracy Network (ADN), the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), and the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) have served as watchdogs in these elections. In their review of the preliminaries they raised a legitimate concern stating: “In this case, the exemption of certain recognized groups from these spending limits damaged the credibility of the campaign finance rules and unnecessarily tilted the campaign playing field towards those candidates with backing from the outside recognized groups.” The same issue was raised in the above-mentioned open letter.

Their accusations are extremely severe: Constraint of the right to free speech and inconsistency of human rights. On 27 October 2015 the EC published a clarification4 simply saying that “These directives of the election commission do not in any way infringe on the right to free speech, association and campaign rights of any candidate, nor do they contravene any international human rights laws.” and that they do not possess any authority to approve these particular organisations. This decision lies in the hands of the Kashag (Tibetan Cabinet).

What makes this selection questionable is the secrecy of the criteria, which the organisations have to meet.

With the additional rule, the campaign expenditure limits serve no purpose at all. Either, the extra rule has to be abolished to providde a level playing field for all candidates, or disclosure of the criteria must be provided so that there is transparency and the Kashag’s decision is comprehensible.

In an interview with Tibet Express5 the CEC asserted that “the directive for campaign expenses was passed to raise awareness among the Tibetan people about the importance of transparency of campaign expenses during elections.”

What the EC apparently is not aware of, is the importance of the implementation of all necessary measures in order to achieve equal opportunities and the best possible transparency.

New 20% regulation in the Sikyong election

On 19 October 2015, the EC issued a circular, publishing the number of candidates to be shortlisted for the Sikyong and Chitues elections. Article 67 of the electoral rules and regulations6 says that the EC will not shortlist less than two candidates for the final election of Sikyong. “However, if the vote margin between the second and third candidate is less than 20% in the preliminary election, three candidates shall be shortlisted for the final Sikyong election.” This incomprehensible new rule was not a real surprise, given the fact that the EC kept quiet about the number of Sikyong candidates in the final round for a long time.

As part of the Europe tour, the CEC visited Switzerland on 3 October 2015 and held a public talk, which I attended. The main goal of this tour was to raise awareness about the elections and their procedure. During the Q&A session7, a particular question was raised. One of the attendees inquired whether the number of candidates for the final Sikyong round would be announced before or after the preliminaries, and if after, why that would be so. Sonam Choephel Shosur, as I predicted, had no straightforward answer to these questions. He explained that there would be six Sikyong candidates for the preliminary elections, but he did not mention a single word about the number of Sikyong candidates to be shortlisted for the final round. Instead, in a bid to circumvent the specific question regarding the Sikyong candidates, he said “if there were ten Chitue seats, there would be 20 Chitue candidates for the final round. At that point I knew that issues like transparency and honesty did not matter much to the EC. I felt that even just a few days before the first round of elections, they were still trying to fool us.

What makes one question this new 20% regulation even more is the fact that in the last elections five years ago, this rule did not exist. The third candidate Tashi Wangdi was qualified for the final round, although the vote margin between him and Tenzin Namgyal Tethong, who stood second, exceeded 20%. In the interview with Tibet Express mentioned above, the EC explained that this rule is to ensure that the third candidate would be included if he fulfilled the given condition “because we found it important as it reflects people’s choice.”

What they probably did not think of is the fact that, like me, many people are now left with basically no choice for the final round, because neither one of the two candidates who are likely to advance to the next round, Lobsang Sangay and Penpa Tsering, represent our opinion. It looks like the EC has not fully understood the concept of democracy, which is to give people a voice. Without Lukar Jam, who is likely to secure the third place in the preliminaries, the diversity of the ideology of the Tibetan people is not expressed.

Furthermore, the most suspicious thing is the timing of the announcement. In an interview with Phayul8, CEC Sonam Choephel Shosur said: “The declaration of the number of candidates to be shortlisted for the final election was made before the results of preliminary is announced to avoid any criticism against the EC for being biased.” If this corresponds to the truth, there is no legitimate reason left for the timing of the announcement, which was after the first results of the preliminaries appeared online.

Although it is hard to say that this was deliberate, it is not difficult to believe that the purpose of the 20% rule was to exclude Sikyong candidate Lukar Jam from the race. Tenzin Nyinjey, Senior Researcher at the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), says: “Because, without him and his arguments for independence, there shall be no serious debate in the finals, since both likely candidates — Lobsang Sangay and Penpa Tsering — are middle pathists.”9

Striving for democracy

As a Tibetan I have utmost pride in the establishment and existence of our government and democracy even though our country is occupied by China. I am endlessly grateful to be able to vote, and appreciate the CTA and EC for providing us this right. I do realize that it takes time to develop our system of governance.

But I am sceptical about EC’s use of “we are an exiled community” as an excuse to justify every dubious incident. Tibetans living in exile circumstances is no reason to accept such arbitrary decisions and live with belief that we cannot amend our system.

Precisely because we are an exiled community, we have to strive for the best democracy possible, and send a strong message to China that, unlike them, we have a functional democracy in exile. All it takes is for Tibetan green book holders to make use of our rights and question unncessary arbitrariness in our electoral system and governance in order to achieve a more liberal and transparent democracy.


  1. Tibet.org/openletter/
  2. VOT.org/archive/page/2/
  3. Facebook.com/tchrd/posts/10153459017401678:0?__mref=message_bubble
  4. Tibet.net/2015/10/clarification-to-the-group-of-tibet-supporters-who-have-expressed-concerns-about-the-tibetan-election-process-in-the-media-dated-13-october-2015/
  5. TibetExpress.net/news/tibetan-election-commission-says-cannot-implement-all-recommendations/
  6. Tibet.net/2015/10/announcement-regarding-final-candidates-for-2016-tibetan-general-election/
  7. YouTube.com/watch?v=P9kmRvF9B4Y
  8. Phayul.com/news/article.aspx?id=36631
  9. Phayul.com/news/article.aspx?id=36639

About the author

Tashi Shitsetsang is a member of the Tibetan Youth Association in Europe (TYAE), and lives in Zurich, Switzerland.

Copyright © 2015 Tashi Shitsetsang Published in Tibet Sun Posted in Opinions » Tags: , , , ,