BRISBANE, Australia, 8 February 2020
There is no denying in exile Tibetan politics, that the race for 2021 Sikyong had already begun as soon as the 2016 election was over. The conspicuous absence of Gyari Dolma in the second term of Sikyong Dr Lobsang Sangay’s cabinet confirmed it. However, it never went more explicit and public than a recent event involving the former speaker and minister, Gyari Dolma herself.
The quiet and clandestine electoral preparation that has been underway over the years since the last election was unwrapped during an event where Gyari Dolma was chief guest and the host youth introduced her as Sikyong candidate (even before an exile-based election commission had set the date for the election). The faux pas had to be cleared by the chief guest herself at the gathering and thereafter. Thanks to Gyari Dolma’s interview with VOA, where she candidly stated that no one would become Sikyong candidate until the primary vote results are announced and its subsequent procedure from EC are conducted. Since smoke has already emerged before fire, let me spark a fire to arouse some heat.
We shall forage into some of the Tibetan exile leaders who are likely to have harboured the intention of becoming Sikyong, or at least making a foray into Sikyong elections, and their prospects of getting crowned at the helm of affairs. As we introduce each Sikyong possibility, we shall examine their pros and cons in the eyes of the public.
The political heavyweight, and perhaps the most powerful Tibetan woman in exile, Gyari Dolma’s aspiration to become Sikyong has never been more explicit than her reluctance to be minister under Dr Lobsang Sangay’s second term, notwithstanding her prospects of retaining a ministerial position.
Merit: High record of leadership and popularity amongst Tibetan settlements in India and abroad, her oratory skills, and performance as home minister in the exile Tibetan Parliament earned immense respect. Her resume of service is long, as she was former TWA and TYC leader, former MP and a minister. Her association with Gyari clan is another advantage. Her elder who passed away in 2019 was a popular figure in exile politics. He served as Speaker of Parliament before becoming minister and later was representative of HH in US. His most important position had been that of special envoy of HHDL which remained vacant or unoccupied since 2011. Another brother of her had also been an MP though he couldn’t retain the seat in the last election. However, her family is an influential in both religious and political echelons of exile community which are set to bolster her prospect.
Downside: Her purported statement of support for Dr Lobsang Sangay for a second term while being a minister in the cabinet on the eve of election caused some stir in exile and earned criticism.
Acharya Yeshi Phuntsok
His aspiration to be a Sikyong hasn’t been known publicly. However, going by the grapevines around Gangchen Kyishong, the seat of the Tibetan exile administration, his intention can’t be ruled out. The current vice-chairman of ATPD is learned to have confided to his close associates his intention to stand for Sikyong. Though he doesn’t possess any administrative experience, his more than two-decade-long Parliamentary experience, camaraderie with Indian politicians, and vote banks from certain sections are encouraging.
Advantage: His close relationship with his voters, service as NDPT president, and decade-long Parliament experience are set to work on his side.
Demerit: He is not so popular outside India as Dr Lobsang Sangay enjoyed in 2011. However, given the large number of voters in his favour, he is a force to be reckoned with and might even become a king-maker.
Probably the most talked-about candidate for Sikyong candidate, the former minister is believed to have harboured strong intentions of becoming a formidable candidate for Sikyong. Believe it or not, he is even discovered to have a website on his candidacy (even before the EC had appointed assistances to the office). The former young activist was also an erstwhile MP who later became a minister in the Samdhong Rinpoche cabinet. He was also appointed NA Representative following his defeat in the Parliament for minister portfolio. His job resumé list is perhaps the longest of all future possible candidates. His recent appearance at Samdhong Rinpoche’s birthday sent waves along the grapevine amongst the exile community, leading many to the speculation that he could be a possible face of Sikyong candidacy given the fact that US-based Tibetans are known for sending most of the candidates since 2011. He currently is president of Tibet Fund based in the United States.
Merit: His long resumé of service to both NGOs and the CTA under various leaderships, and camaraderie with almost every leadership in exile will play sport. A man who can speak Tibetan to Tibetans and English to English.
Downside: He failed to get elected in his second term as minister. Gossips were galore but couldn’t be mentioned or proven legally as there had not been any public statement to substantiate. His age will also spoil him a bit and his personal commitment might force him to remain in the US.
Tenzin Dhardon Sharling
The erstwhile MP who won the largest votes ever in the MP election from Utsang constituency is currently undertaking a PhD in Communication in the US. She was the youngest MP of 2011, whose prospect of becoming the youngest minister was marred by her age disqualification. Had it not been the age issue, her resumé would gloss another qualification of being a minister. However, many still assume she is a potential possible candidate who harbours aspirations of becoming a Sikyong one day. Her conspicuous absence in public gatherings, in contrast to the ubiquitous presence at recent events by Gyari Dolma, seems to have paved a comfortable way for the latter.
Merit: Despite controversy in recent times, she will remain a strong contender given her prior social service and exile leadership. Her good rapport with her peers and oratory skills are formidable advantages if she chooses to run.
Demerit: Her controversial nomination to and approval from Parliament despite her age disqualification hit her prestige heavily in 2016, and subsequently led to her defeat in the Parliament for a second attempt at a ministerial position. Things went further south when her name appeared in the 10-point clarification of PT’s removal from the representative post. The issue, which engulfed the exile community, finally was settled legally at the Tibetan Supreme Justice Commission.
Believe it or not, the New Delhi Representative of HHDL and former security minister is likely to be a stronger contender. Support is being build up slowly to ensure he gets elected in the primary for the final run-off. The current New Delhi Representative served twice as minister both under Samdhong Rinpoche and Dr Lobsang Sangay. He may not have political experience as MP, but he is long-time bureaucrat who has a thorough understanding of the inner workings of CTA.
Merit: A non-controversial figure loaded with administrative experience are advantages on his side. He also may get traditional and conservative votes from people who continue to have strong faith in him.
Demerit: He is not Dr Lobsang Sangay who can gerrymander and manoeuvre along the tide of ocean. He lacks youthful energy and his connection to the graduated youth is weak. His age will also spoil his prospects. Remember Dr Sangay was just 43 when he stood for election along with his peers except Tenzin Tethong.
The only rival candidate to Dr Lobsang Sangay’s second term for Sikyong, Penpa Tsering’s candidacy for 2021 was a foregone matter as soon as he lost to the former. His subsequent appointment as HHDL representative for NA further cemented this hope, as NA constitutes almost 30% of the votes for Sikyong. The former Speaker ran for 2011 as well in the primaries along with Gyari Dolma, Tethong, and Lobsang Sangay. There is a saying that whether PT will become Sikyong or not, he will always be a Speaker of ATPD.
Merit: His oratory skills and political experience would serve purpose from chunks of people who sympathise with his abrupt termination from his job as HHDL Representative. Twice speaker and long-time parliamentarian, his uncompromising stand on the Middle-Way policy might secure strong votes from Middle-Way policy aspirants. His victorious emergence in the high-profile Case No 20 might play sport.
Demerit: The controversy surrounding his removal from HH representative office in NA remains his biggest challenge. Even though he won the case legally, his electoral victory prospects are remote.
The chief resilient officer, a close confidante of Sikyong Lobsang Sangay, is an unlikely candidate to pen here. However, walls have heard a conversation where it is believed that Sikyong would offer more implicit support to him than Gyari Dolma personally. He is duped a minister camouflaged in bureaucracy. His term as Dalai Lama Representative was also cut short by Sikyong himself to pave the way for Penpa Tsering. Sikyong even went too far to evince his proximity to the former representative, stating his close and personal friendship enabled him to change the position without completion of the term service. There is mystery that Kaldor speaks less but does more, the silent engine.
Merit: He has extensive experience at both a personal and public level in serving CTA. No major controversy except for the $1.5M issue that dragged him down in the mud despite the money being spent for public purpose. His proximity to Sikyong and others might be an advantage.
Downside: His vote banks are weak given the fact that Gyari Dolma is a strong force to reckon with. His prospect of winning votes from India, Nepal, and Bhutan are remote.
There are others apart from the formidable ones mentioned above that are doing the rounds, a few of whom are: US-based Ugyen Tenzin, former minister and current NA representative Ngodup Tsering, Buchung K Tsering, Dr Tenzin Dorjee, as well as current finance minister Karma Yeshi. However, their prospects are remote and may not make it to the top five list in the primaries. If I missed naming any probable one might want to add oneself in their mind.
Between 2001 and 2016, exile Tibetans elected two leaders at the top following the Dalai Lama’s semi and complete retirement from the political affairs of Tibetans in exile. Both the leaders enjoyed comfortable wins in the second. Both are erudite in their fields of scholarly specialisation. Whether Tibetans will elect another erudite personality as a leader, or a new and completely different face be saddled at the helm, will be seen in one and half years from today.
About the author
Doring Tenzin Phuntsok, alias DTP, is an MIR and MIL student at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.