By Choenyi WoeserTranslated by Kalsang Dhondup and Tenzin Gaphel
It has been 59 years since Tibetans led by His Holiness the Dalai Lama came into exile following the Chinese occupation of Tibet. In the beginning, a Tibetan government-in-exile was established in India and gradually, by reforming the old governing system, an electoral system was introduced in accordance with the ideals of democracy. Initially, an elected body comprising of equal representations from the traditional Tibetan provinces and religious schools was formed and the number of representatives in the assembly was increased in the following years. Currently, the assembly, now known as the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile, comprises of ten representatives each from the traditional provinces, two each from the religious schools, two each from North America and Europe and one from Australasia. The Sikyong (President or political head) is directly elected by the Tibetan people.
During elections in a democracy without any particular political parties such as ours, welfare associations of the traditional provinces, non-governmental organizations and voluntary groups introduce and endorse their candidates for the post of Sikyong and Members of Parliament. Lately, with the surge in people’s interest in the elections, a number of campaign committees in support of their respective candidates were also formed.
Though the Central Tibetan Administration (Erstwhile known as the Tibetan government-in-exile) claims that the Tibetan democracy in exile is a genuine and unique form of democracy, a lot of people have criticized it as flawed democracy that does not guarantee all the democratic freedoms. There have also been instances during past elections and in the highest forms of decision-making on political matters that all the democratic freedoms were not guaranteed.
Dr Tsering Topgyal who studied ‘Political Science and International Relations’ and ‘Chinese Politics’ stated in 2014: “Tibetan democracy in exile is not a complete and ideal democracy. It is a democracy in the reforming stages even though elections are held and the three pillars of democracy exist. Generally speaking, in a democracy everyone should have the right and necessary conditions to participate in elections. Everyone should have equal right to campaign and should be allowed to express their ideological view to the public. And for this to materialize, people should have complete freedom to gather and form organizations and welfare associations. Since our democracy is in the reforming stages, we are facing a lot of issues.”
During the Tibetan parliament session held in September, 2018 an amendment was adopted in the Parliament pertaining to Clause (VII) of Article 24 of the Tibetan electoral rules and regulations which states that ‘all regional associations, religious sects and NGOs are prohibited from nominating and advertising candidates for the post of Sikyong and Members of Parliament. However, if an individual candidate exercises his rights laid down in the Tibetan electoral rules and regulations to express his political ideology at public gatherings, state his commitments and distribute his individual manifesto to the public, it will not be considered a violation of the above mentioned law. All campaign related activities must cease two days prior to the day of election.’
Not only has this new law been criticized by several people as being a hindrance to the democratic system, it has left candidates standing in future elections without any clear electoral system.
(1)Even though it is not stated clearly in the electoral rules and regulations whether political parties can participate in the election, if associations and groups can not endorse their candidates, the new law connotes that political parties are barred forever from participating in elections. Although, there is no precedence of Tibetan government-in-exile being run by a political party, National Democratic Party of Tibet (NDPT) was formed with the mission to function as a political party and has been recognized as such by Tibetans in exile.
I do agree with barring associations representing the three traditional provinces from interfering in the elections. However, according to the ideals of democracy, prohibiting political parties from participating in elections and barring people from collectively introducing and campaigning for their candidate is prohibition of people’s democratic right to assembly and opinion. Unlike regional and welfare associations, political parties are formed by people with similar political ideology on how a government should be run. For example, Tibetan National Congress was formed with a political stand calling for the complete independence of Tibet and irrespective of the number of its members, presently it functions in the capacity of an opposition party.
When National Democratic Party of Tibet was first established, His Holiness the Dalai Lama had stated: ‘For Tibet to become a functioning democracy in the true sense of the word, it is important to have various political parties. I think that the establishment of your political party today will definitely serve in fulfilling our goals in the future.’ It is quite ironic as Members of the Parliament
, who usually indulge in opposing and vilifying others with the claim that everyone should follow whatever His Holiness wishes and states, strongly called for barring political parties and the legislative bill was adopted with a very high majority in the House.
The Tibetan leaders in exile are not only too afraid and careful to speak about Tibetan independence, but have also opposed those who call for Tibetan independence. Since Tibetan National Congress endorsed a candidate who unambiguously expressed his stand for Tibetan independence in the last election, it is possible that the Members of Parliament strongly supported the proposed legislative bill with the sole aim to stop such precedence from repeating itself. In addition to that, during the parliamentary session, many members also stated that it is illegal for regional and welfare associations to endorse candidates in election. On what legal basis do we need to understand this statement? If groups representing exiled Tibetans participation in election is considered illegal, then Tibetans in exile are left with very little democratic space and agency to participate in elections.
In the beginning, in accordance with the wishes of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, equal number of representatives was allocated to represent the Tibetan people, irrespective of the number of exiled Tibetan population belonging to the traditional provinces and religious sects. During the elections, National Democratic Party of Tibet, which doesn’t identify itself as a regional or welfare organization, and voluntary campaign committees formed by groups of people introduced and campaigned for the candidates they wanted as Members of Parliament from respective constituencies.
If we were to implement the ideals and principles of democracy, we should gradually embrace reforms and move forward. Since the current Tibetan Parliament is set up according to the wishes of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, there is no need to make drastic changes to the current set up. If we could work towards allowing political parties to openly endorse candidates with similar ideology for Members of Parliament from all constituencies and let the party with the majority in the Parliament to run the government as per their political ideology and introduce necessary reforms, we would be much closer to the ideals of democracy. The public will also responsibly participate in the elections.
(2)If there is no space or platform to introduce candidates during elections, there will be so many candidates campaigning for themselves since none of the respective associations will announce their list of candidates. In such a scenario, common people who are not so aware of or do not possess the capability to know all the possible candidates, may be forced to vote for random candidates suggested by their respective settlement officers and local leaders.
(3)Under the amended electoral law, there is a possibility of electoral campaigns being carried out in a positive manner as well as it being misused in dangerous ways. Earlier, since introduction of candidates and electoral campaigns were carried out by organizations and voluntary groups or support committees, and debates were organized by known entities, it was possible for a voter to cast his vote after carefully analyzing the candidates as well as those who have endorsed the candidates. It empowers voters to vote for the right candidates. Since known entities such as organizations and support groups are barred from announcing their candidates, it will lead to less consolidation of votes for the candidates. In addition, if a group of people that claims to be a support committee under some arbitrary name campaigns for certain candidates, is it possible to implement the penalties for authorless campaign literature? If such kinds of literature are distributed and circulated among people, it is bound to leave an impact on public perception.
If such activities are considered as violation of electoral rules and the number of votes of the candidate in question could be reduced, people might form various arbitrary campaign committees and advertise for candidates that they do not wish to be elected. It will lead to more mudslinging and controversial interpretations on announcement of candidature. It may be easy to brush it aside by identifying it as an authorless campaign literature but it is definitely going to affect the candidates, for better or for worse. Furthermore, if too many arbitrary campaigning happens, it would be difficult to ascertain how much money has been spent on an individual’s campaign and the source of the funds too. On the contrary, if candidates are openly endorsed by known organizations and associations, there will be no need to cast the vote based on contents of authorless campaign material and no room for unnecessary controversies.
Even if debates between the candidates vying for the post of Sikyong and Members of Parliament were organized by some organization or media house, especially during the preliminary elections when the number of candidates is much larger than the final election, it would be extremely difficult to provide equal platform to all the candidates. It is also possible that some invited candidates may not wish to appear on debates for reasons best known to them. However, since not every candidate will have the opportunity to express their opinions and commitments on such debate platforms, people will get the impression that the candidates who appeared on these debates have the tacit support of the organizers, which will further lead to more controversies. On the other hand, if there were no such platforms and if every individual candidate were to search for public spaces to express their opinions on their own, not only will both time and space be insufficient, the public may not also be interested to attend too.
(4)During earlier Sikyong elections, various organizations and associations endorsed their own candidates. Not only were various support committees formed for each Sikyong candidates but some of the support committees continued their support for the same candidates in the next election and functioned like an organization. Since election expenses is another controversial matter, during earlier elections the Election Commission had set a limit to the election expenses and all the candidates were required to submit their election expenses to the Election Commission. Therefore, in order to get their candidates elected, support groups had maintained financial accounts of all the election related expenses and its sources in a transparent manner. But now, in the absence of endorsements from organizations and support committees who can be held accountable for election expenses, individual candidates are free to spend and submit whatever they wish to.
Furthermore, it is possible that an individual candidate, after discussing with his supporters, pastes campaign leaflets on walls and secretly contacts various settlements to secure more votes. In such a scenario, if controversy erupts over violation of electoral rules claiming some candidates have formed secret associations, who will take the responsibility and resolve the issue?
During the previous elections, certain associations and administrations did not allow some Sikyong candidates to use their space such as community halls to give public talks while others were allowed to interact with the public. If such incidents are repeated in the coming elections and allegations are raised that the association or administration in question is supporting the candidate, how will the issue be resolved? Will it be possible to implement the penalties mentioned in the electoral rules and regulations?
In a democratic society, since an individual cannot run from pillar to post and make all the decisions, organizations and the general public need to work together. During elections, organizations and groups will support their candidates, and they should. Therefore, its better for groups of people to campaign for their candidates rather than individual supporters campaigning for their respective candidates.
Even though we have the right to vote in the Tibetan community in exile, it still lacks many features of democracy. If we continue in the same way, it will hinder the effectiveness of public gathering and collective decision making. Generally speaking, having the right to vote does not necessarily reflect existence of functioning democracy or freedom of thought.Choenyi Woser is a journalist who writes in Tibetan language.
In case of discrepancies in translation, please consider the original in Tibetan as authoritative.
Link to the original article in Tibetan: http://bangchen.net/41445/48/28/
The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.