By Pam D. Tenzin
Nearly four years back, Tibetan Prime Ministerial election drew unprecedented hype and attention around the world (where Tibetans Diasporas are concentrated). Even the southernmost part of Indian city called Chennai wasn’t spared from the storm of election. For the first time, Tibetan college students based in Chennai also participated in the 2011 Tibetan (Prime Ministerial and Parliamentary) Election. I still remember young Tibetan college students who were in support of then candidate Dr Lobsang Sangay, wearing white T-shirts striped with ‘Katri Lobsang Sangay’ and interviewing student leaders there about their views on election. I was then among those who spoke in support of then candidate Ex-PM Tethong Tenzin Namgyal given his experience and intellectuality. However, I didn’t rule out Dr Lobsang Sangay from serving Central Tibetan Administration. Around that time, I was in favor of Dr Lobsang Sangay becoming Kalon (Minister) for Information and International Relations so that later, he can become Sikyong in 2016 with much more understanding and experience of the Tibetan administration. This utopia didn’t materialize as Dr Sangay won against his nearest rival Tethong Tenzin Namgyal.
As His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was already in semi-retirement stage as far as his political role was concerned, the 2011 Tibetan Election was both curious and worrisome. On the one hand, you had first-ever Harvard fellow debuting in the Tibetan election with a youthful and charismatic face impressing hearts of many Tibetans, both young and old. On the other hand, Tethong T. Namgyal’s candidacy was being contested by many on various grounds including his past deeds and aristocratic lineage. The debate between the candidates went so deep and wide that the election became one of the most talked about and historic election in exile history. Why I called it was ‘Obamic season’ was on account of his academic achievements and luck that followed him in the contest. Even before election wind was flowing, Dr. Lobsang Sangay made an implicit speech during the 4th Tibetan College Students’ Conference held in Chennai where he said, “My final service of destination is Dharamsala and there is no doubt about that”. Though the campaigns for both the candidates emerged mainly from west (as both candidates were then residents of the United States), it was east (mainly Tibetans in India) who helped boost the election to such unprecedented scale and made Dr. Lobsang Sangay the Kalon Tripa or Prime Minister later known as ‘Sikyong’, the Political Leader.
What were the factors that were in favour of Dr Lobsang Sangay becoming the Prime Minister and resulting in the defeat of Tethong Tenzin Namgyal? Tibetan youth falling in the 21-39 years age group comprising of college students, monks and nuns was the vote bank that decided the outcome of the election. For the young Tibetan college students, Dr Lobsang Sangay was both an icon and inspiration. Dr Sangay’s youthful appearance and academic credentials that included a doctorate degree from Harvard University put him as the first choice for Prime Minister among the youngsters. Students like accessible leaders and Dr Sangay did it both with his academic credentials and knack for connecting with the Tibetan youth. As far as monks are concerned, though they could be conservative in general, situation tends to make them ponder otherwise. During the 2011 elections, the participation of both monks and students increased as compared to their electoral participation in the previous elections held in 2006. Monks, who were and still 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. Professor Samdhong Rinpoche couldn’t be elected again as Tibetan Charter’s provisions limit the tenure of the Prime Minister to two terms of five years each. Hence, the only choices left were Dr Sangay, Ex-Premier Tethong T. Namgyal and Ex-Minister Tashi Wangdi. Tashi Wangdi was unlikely to win as he was initially reluctant to announce his candidacy despite partaking in several of the public debates. Hence the choice was between the two; Dr Sangay with his academic and youthful credentials and the other, Tethong Tenzin Namgyal, a veteran Politian whose experience and charisma were a force to reckon with. However, in the final elections, monks and nuns decided to vote for Dr Lobsang Sangay on account of his promising and convincing public talk.
Those in the forties age group also contributed in Dr Lobsang Sangay winning the elections. The elderly Tibetan voters were of course 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 have much educational opportunities though they are far more spirited and nationalistic than us. They too were looking for young and educated people and Dr Sangay presented himself as the most reliable and fitting candidate at that time.
As far as the institutions and organizations were concerned, 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 individual level that voted or campaigned for Tethong Tenzin Namgyal.
Let us finish with the background of 2011 elections and take a look at the upcoming Sikyong elections. When we say election for Sikyong is coming up, Tibetan people tend to think of Dr Lobsang Sangay, TPiE Speaker Penpa Tseing, Home Minister Gyari Dolma, Security Minister Drungchung Ngodup, Ex-PM Tethong Tenzin Namgayal, Ex-Minister Lobsang Nyandak and even Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche and Gyari Lodi Gyaltsen. The first preference among the Sikyong candidate is most likely 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 late Premier Juchen Thupten Namgyal, the election could be termed democratic as he stood as rival candidate despite knowing that he will lose the elections (It was a bold and most democratic move by Juchen Thupten Namgyal). Grapevines are doing the round this year about the possible aspirants standing for Sikyong. Among the front runners are Sikyong Dr Lobsang Sangay and Speaker Penpa Tsering. However, a new candidate sprang up out of blue even before the Election Commissioners announced the dates for Primary and General Elections in the form of Mr Tashi Wangdi, CEO of Federation of Tibetan Cooperatives. Tashi Wangdi was said to be among the top supporters of Dr Sangay in the 2011 elections. One of the top supporters of Dr Sangay standing for Sikyong Election despite Dr Sangay having second term option is something we need to think of. National Democratic Party of Tibet is the only surviving and functioning political party that has been actively partaking in the elections by supporting candidates for Sikyong and Tibetan Parliament House. Apart from each provinces and other regional community producing their candidates, NDPT’s list is eagerly awaited for being the most outspoken organization as well as a political party. During its press conference at Norbu House, 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 produce their own candidates for Sikyong and Parliamentaryelections. One striking transformation in the exile electoral history is that the leadership role has moved to second rung younger generations; it is quite clear that exile born leaders who have not even seen their motherland are ready to take over the political leadership of Tibetan struggle. This is an encouraging sign of continuation of Tibetan struggle and at the same time, the fruit of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s decade’s long dream of reclaiming freedom through education and non-violence.
However, one discouraging factor is the near absence of any convincing lady candidate who can occupy the Sikyong Seat in the last five decades. Also only few Tibetan women had and has served in the cabinet as Ministers like Jetsun Pema, Rinchen Khando (both are associated with His Holiness) and Takla Yangkyi. In this 14th Kashag (Cabinet) headed by Sikyong Dr Lobsang Sangay, there are two women viz; Gyari Dolma, a longtime Tibetan Parliamentarian and two time deputy Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament and Dikki Chhoyang, the Kalon for Department of Information and International Relations and a resident of Canada. In the 2011 elections, Gyari Dolma, the most prominent and visible face of Tibetan women in exile stood in the priliminary but retreated in the final elections. This time too, she is unlikely to contest even though some people or organization might stand in support of her. Surprisingly, social media, which is 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 ‘Speaker Penpa Tsering for Sikyong 2016’.
Unlike last election, if public debates are to be had, Dr Lobsang Sangay will have to provide more answers to the people about 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, no candidate can have an easy win without convincing the Tibetan public. The largest vote banks in terms of territory include settlements like Mungod, Bylakupee, Ladakh, Bir, Dharamsala, combination of North-East Tibetan settlements. In terms of institutions, monasteries and NGOs and provincial and regional associations and communities are going to form major vote banks by influence or clout.
Unless new candidates emerge, the two official candidates supported by NDPT and other provincial and regional communities are likely to win. The battle is between the Kalimpong born Havardian 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, the courage of the the person who stands as a rival candidate need to be appreciated. Who do I vote for remains a secret.
Pam D. Tenzin alias Doring Tenzin Phuntsok completed M.Phil in Political Science and is a former General Secretary of NDPT Central.
Views expressed in this article are the author’s own and should not be attributed to Tibet Express.