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By Email[Tuesday, February 23, 2010 21:00]
By Dr. Lobsang Sangay

After the latest 9th dialogue, Zhu Weiqun, Vice-Minister of the United Front of China, in his usual vitriolic press conference, had the audacity to state that "the so-called 'Tibet government-in-exile' is utterly illegal. It can neither represent Tibet nor the Tibetan people." (Xinhua, 1, Feb. 2010) We have to prove this statement wrong. Fortunately, there is an upcoming opportunity. Every vote cast in the next Kalon Tripa election will directly challenge Zhu Weiqun and the Chinese government and demonstrate that the Tibetan government in exile is not only legitimate but moving towards a consolidated democracy. On the other hand, every vote not cast by Tibetans will indirectly affirm Zhu Weiqun’s assertion. So the choice is very clear. As former President George W. Bush said, “Are you with us or with them?” Let us send a resounding message to the Chinese government, the world, and Tibetans in Tibet that exile Tibetans are exercising our democratic rights and marching head on to control our own destiny.

Unfortunately, if the past is any guide, we have a long way to go. Exile Tibetan participation in the last Kalon Tripa election ranked very low (estimated 30% of those eligible to vote or above 18 years old and 44% among registered voters) compared to other countries where leaders are democratically elected. What can be done to reverse this cycle and bring out the highest possible voter turnout which will validate the candidate-elect and legitimize the Tibetan government in exile as the democratic representative of the Tibetan people inside and outside Tibet?

There is hope. Such important change can happen by introducing simple methods of electoral reforms that are increasingly popular in developing and developed countries. These reforms include instituting Mail-in-Ballots, Proxy-Ballots, and doing away with Registration, or if that’s too big a change, then instituting Early and Same-Day-Voter-Registration. Combined with a rebate for Rangzen Lakhdeb, specifically for those without income, reforms could double or triple the volume of Tibetan votes by helping to ease inconveniences faced by key constituents, including sweater sellers, students, Tibetans abroad, Magmi, monks who need to attend teachings and women with children at home.

As the history of other comparable governments in exile ominously reveal, if the government in exile does not survive, then the movement will swiftly fail. One of the pillars of a strong democracy is the election of the head of the government, which in our case is Kalon Tripa. We all agree that if the Tibetan struggle is to sustain for another fifty years, it is the Tibetan government in exile and its democratic foundation which travel the distance.

The low turnout in the previous Kalon Tripa election both surprised and disappointed me. Not someone who is easily discouraged, I decided to compare the result with other countries’ elections in the hope that we might fare better than or equal to at least a democratic country or two. Since we are fighting for our freedom, our political awareness and participation should be equal to, if not greater than, consolidated democratic countries like Australia (95.17%), Belgium (91.08%), Luxemburg (91.68%), Austria (81.71%), Italy (80.54%) and Brazil (83.27%). But as these percentages of election participation show, sadly our participation doesn’t fare even half as well as many of them. Perhaps we could be comparable to other Buddhist countries? But we don’t fare any better in this category either: Sri Lanka (75.96%), Thailand (78.51%), and Japan (67.46%). We also lag behind our neighboring countries with whom we consider ourselves comparable: Bhutan (79.45%), Mongolia (74.31) and Nepal (63.29%). Perhaps we are at par with newly independent countries, as our struggle resonates with theirs, but Latvia (60.98%), and Slovenia (63.1%), have significantly higher turnouts in elections, even today. Finally, what about those countries where the Taliban and Al Qaeda are murdering voters for practicing their rights and in many cases cut their fingers and thumbs for simply participating in election? But even under these conditions, Afghans and Iraqis defy death and vote in large numbers: Afghanistan (83.66) and Iraq (58.32). In Iran, where votes are allegedly rigged in favor of the ruling party, and protestors are shot at, voter turn out was higher than for exile Tibetans (59.7). In comparison to these life-threatening situations, all we needed to do was simply show up at voting booths with no fear of death or harm, but we failed to do this. Instead, we earned the distinction of being among the lowest-ranking compared to other democratic elections. Even Palestine, which is comparable to our situation, has a higher turnout higher than us (77.7%).

Afghanistan:   57.79% 83.66%
Australia: 82.74% 95.17%
Belgium:  86 % 91.08%
Bhutan:    61.81% 79.45%
Brazil:  83.54% 83.27%
Canada:  58.39% 64.94%
Czech Rep.   65.12% 64.47%
Denmark:   83.2 % 86.59%
Germany:   71.99% 77.65%
France: 54.52% 60.44%
India:  60.57 % 57.75%
Iran:    67.62 % 58.32%
Iraq:    64.33 % 58.32%
Ireland: 68.89 % 67.03%
Israel:   64.72%
Italy:   79.13 % 80.54%
Japan: 66.62 % 67.46%
Latvia:  50.18 % 60.98%
Luxemburg: 56.5 % 91.68%
Mongolia:  60.47% 74.31%
Maldives:  55.38% 71.29%
Nepal: 74.42% 63.29%
New Zealand:  77.42% 79.46%
Norway: 76.54% 77.44%
Palestine: 57.65% 77.7%
Spain: 77.2 % 75.32%
Sri Lanka:  70.78 % 75.96%
Slovenia: 65.04% 63.1%
South Africa:   77.3%
Taiwan:    56.8 % 58.5%
United Kingdom:    58.32% 61.36%
USA   61.7% 63%
Afghanistan 2009 presidential election turnout estimated at 40+%
Tibet:   30%  44%

Source: http://www.idea.int/vt/

[The Tibetan population is approximately 150,000 and those eligible to vote (above 18 years old) are estimated at 120,000. In the last Kalon Tripa election, there were 72,000 registered voters out of which 32,205 people voted (44%). Samdhong Rinpoche received 29,216 votes(90.72%).

In percentage terms, it is disappointing to learn that among the eligible voters (120,000), only 60% were registered to vote and, worse, an estimated 30% actually voted. Even just counting registered voters, only 44% of registered Tibetans participated. It is alarming that there are still around 40% of Tibetans who are not even registered to vote and, heartbreakingly, 70% who did not vote. These statistics are truly frightening and show that we require drastic surgery to get our electoral process into shape.

To explain such a low turn out, it could be argued that Samdhong Rinpoche was an overwhelming favorite. However, in Australia and Luxemburg, popular incumbency or not, voters executed their civic duty by turning out in large numbers. A lone consolation is that compared to other exile governments, like Xinjiang, Mongolia, and even Burma, the Tibetan government in exile, in regard to both its administration and democratic processes are far more effective and mature. However, our goal is to be among the best so that we showcase to the world, including China and our brethren in Tibet, that we are capable of forming a fully democratic government and providing a better alternative to authoritarian communist party and its colonial power structure in Tibet with Han Chinese as the ruling elite.

I am sure there is plenty of blame to go around, from Kashag, Chitue, Election Commission to governmental and NGOs’ responsible for promoting democratic processes in our community. Even some of the critics and commentators on Mangtso or Maangtso have neither registered nor voted in the past election. But instead of playing the blame game, it might be wise to understand this low turnout as a collective failure on the part of the government and the people. It appears that instead of urgency and enthusiasm to strengthen our democracy, we are complacent with what we have, which is not satisfactory. The obvious question is: What can be done to improve the present system? A brief history of Tibetan Election Regulation will reflect a long journey and many points of progress made along the way, but it will also reveal an antiquated process requiring reforms to adapt to the 21st century.

History of Election Law:

In his fourth audience on November 17th, 1959, HH the Dalai Lama urged Tibetans to be united and embrace modern governing system. This was followed by Nagen Chenmo (Great Oath) in Bodh Gaya (3-2-1960) and soon thereafter he urged leaders of all sects and regions to elect the parliament loosely based on consociationalism (Conciliatory system is practiced in Estonia and Preferential system in Papua New Guinea). However, only broad guidelines were drafted with no election regulation, so without election, Dokham Chushi Gangdruk appointed/selected six members for Kham and Amdo regions for the first parliament. Similarly, four Buddhist sects selected/appointed their respective representatives, though the Bonpo sect was not represented till the 6th Chitue (1975-78). Women representatives were s/elected from the second parliament (1963-66)) onward, as mandated by His Holiness, but they were conspicuously absent from 1974 to 1990 parliaments, perhaps reflecting the patriarchal mindset. Only the U-Tsang representatives had a semblance of an election in the first parliament because they didn’t have a central association, and workers in Sikkim and other areas gathered, possibly with vocal ones nominating, and through a show of hands, counted the numbers and sent them to Dharamsala.

The first modern election regulation came into existence only in 1974-75, when a few students pursuing political science in Chandigarh University were hired by the Election Commission (Kasur Lobsang Thargay was a member) to translate Indian election law into Tibetan. The Commission kept aspects of these laws that were most relevant to Tibetans. The election regulation was further revised and implemented in the Feb. 24, 1991 election, when expanded parliament and elections were held in 70 local election centers in India, Nepal, the US and Europe. (Often in remote places where there are few Tibetans like Tuting, Dimarpur, Kinnaur, Bhopal, Lumbini, and Calcutta, voting could not be held for logistical reasons.)

Compared to the 1960s both in terms of organizational logistics and voting processes, certainly progress has been made. But again, the end result continues to show low turn out. Since the election regulation is now two decades old, the time has come to introduce processes that accommodate our exile situation. What we need is an effective method based on what legal scholar Cass Sunstein calls advocacy of "law and behavioral economics" that seeks to shape law and policy around the way research shows how people actually behave.

To adapt to the law and behavioral economics model, I suggest considering implementation of the following procedures: a) Mail-in-Ballot, b) Proxy-Ballot, c) do away with the Voter Registration or if not, introduce Early and Same-Day-Voter-Registration and d) rebates on Rangzen Lakhdeb. Combining these practices might propel Tibetan elections to a new height, and at some point we might even catch up with the highest election turn out in consolidated democratic countries, which should be our long-range goal.


MAIL-IN-BALLOTS: This simply means that Tibetans will cast their ballot through the postal system, in advance, in place of physically voting at a polling booth on the Election Day. Given the slowness of the Indian postal system, and the fact that Tibetans are scattered in approximately thirty countries, up to two months should be allowed for mail-in ballots. This period will also help create a buzz among the public, enabling Tibetans to discuss the issues and the candidates, thereby creating momentum for a major turnout.

It should be possible for the public to download ballot papers on the internet. They can also be given out in hard copy through the Offices of Tibet and local Election Commission/Association. In the first envelope, voters will seal the stamped ballot with the choice of their candidate(s). The second envelop will contain a copy of each voter’s Rangzen Lakdheb with dues paid, and if possible with a stamp of the local Rangzen Lakhdeb Tsongchung. In this way, when the local election commissioner or Office of Tibet representative opens the first envelope, s/he can verify the registration and check whether dues have been paid. If both are valid, then the envelope with the ballot will be put in the ballot box. This way, the confidentiality of each voter will be preserved while verifying registration and dues payment of Rangzen Lakhdeb. Such simple modification could bear impressive results. (In the state of Oregon in the US, after adopting the mail-in-ballots for the national election, turn out increased to 84-87%. (Also Read: Vote-by-Mail: The Real Winner Is Democracy)

Mail-in-ballots are practiced in several other states in the US and among countries include Germany, England and Switzerland.

PROXY-BALLOTS: A model practiced in the Netherlands and few other countries, where one can authorize another person to cast the vote. Instead of everybody lining up for 3-4 hours, family can delegate a member to vote on their behalf or an office colleague to do the same for others. Ballot papers can be received few days prior to the election, each family member marks their own candidates, and a family member will simply deposit it in the ballot box. It saves time for everybody.

E-BALLOTS: is practiced mostly in private companies but in Estonia, the public cast their votes through the internet which might be too advance for us now but a consideration for the future given the fact that Tibetans are scattered in thirty countries.

DO AWAY WITH THE REGISTRATION REQUIREMENT: A somewhat radical but reasonably practical shift could be to eliminate registration and instead have Rangzen Lakhdeb dues serve as voter registration. As it is, even if registered, Rangzen Lakhdeb dues payment determines voter eligibility. Once again, only 72,000 are registered, which is around 60% of the eligible voters. In other words, more than 40% have yet to register, which is an alarmingly large percentage.

Compounding the problem is that in every five-year election cycle, those between 18 and 23 years old (about 6,000-10,000 voters) will be required to register. Unless there are concerted registration campaigns in every election cycle, this gap will not be bridged. However, these campaigns are extremely difficult because the ad hoc Election Commission is fully functional only several months prior to each election—making it not surprising that the lowest voter turnout is among college students and the youth in part because registration is cumbersome and also costly.

To even further increase these difficulties, under current law, people are required to register two months prior to the election. Previously, Kalon Tripa elections were held in the month of March. This means that registration ended in January, when the people in Shichag or other settlements were mostly away engaged in the winter sweater selling business. Another obstacle is the fact that if one has not registered for the preliminary election round, then one is not allowed to register or vote in the final round.

Given these obstacles, eliminating the current method of voter registration appears to be practical and prudent, and essential to increasing our voter turnout.

EARLY VOTER REGISTRATION: However, if voter registration is to stand, then it should not end two months prior to an election; rather, registration should remain open up to and on the Election Day. Like the suggested mail-in ballots, the two-month registration period will help create a buzz and discussions about registration. Tibetans can walk into their local Election Commission/Rangzen Lakhdeb Tsogchung and/or local Tibetan Association to register to vote.

SAME-DAY-REGISTRATION: Voters can pay their Rangzen Lakhdeb dues and/or register to vote on Election Day. After doing so, they can line up to vote for their candidates of choice. In this way, voters will have to stand in lines twice first to register/pay dues and then to vote.

Places that have adopted same-day voter registration prove that it works. After adopting the same-day voter registration, voter turn out was 10-12% higher in states like Minnesota compared to other states that did not adopt this in the 2004 US Presidential election.

I must make it clear that the present practice of physically voting will continue and above reforms will be an addition to the present practice of voting on Election Day. Also it is important to note that despite complaints against Mail-in-Ballots and Same Day Registration, it is gaining prominence and spreading, which means the complaints are negligible. Even in the present Tibetan election, it is understood that elder Tibetans who could not read or/and write, seek aid of others who in turn add, at times, their preferred candidates. But this reality is overlooked because of negligible impact.

RANGZEN LAKHDEB: In order to increase Rangzen Lakhdeb registration, in March 2008, the Chitue sanctioned waivers for a year and then extended this by an additional 6 months and required a payment of only $11 to renew Rangzen Lakhdeb. This resulted in increased registration of 3,793 in North America bringing the total to 7,612 at the end of 2008 from an approximate population of 15,000. Similar situation could be in Europe with an exception of Switzerland where payment has always been high. This can be improved, because the 2008 Tibet Uprising, justifiably dominated the news and attention of Tibetans worldwide, and deflected the focus of the local Tibetan Associations away from the Rangzen Lakhdeb drive. This year might be an opportune time for the Chitue to reintroduce the drive, which is likely to significantly increase renewal of Rangzen Lakhdeb.

At present, 75,932 pay Rangzen Lakhdeb in India, 11,629 in Nepal, and 1,348 in Bhutan representing 77.67%, 67.09% and 77.15% of the population respectively. In sum, 88,909 pay in India, Nepal and Bhutan, and represents 76.09% of the population. Excluding those below 6 years old (less than 10%), it is reasonable to assume that more than 15% do not pay their dues.

Perhaps one way to address this is for the Chitue to lower dues for the unemployed and for monks in India, Bhutan and Nepal. Requiring them to pay a symbolic rupee a month (12 rupees a year) could be an improvement in increasing registration because ultimately, the possession of Rangzen Lakhdeb helps one identify as a Tibetan patriot in exile. In most countries, people of low income are exempt from paying taxes. This is a sensible practice that we should adopt for Tibetans.


The original purpose and intent of the democratic election in exile was to educate us about democratic processes so that we can showcase to the Tibetans in Tibet, to the world and to China that we have a better alternative. It was also to educate all of us in exile about democratic elections which can be adopted and implemented once we return to a free Tibet. However, legal reforms and changes in institutional mechanisms have limits -- ultimately, success is dependent on whether the people participate. It is up to each of us to successfully implement democracy in exile.

At the moment we are failing quite badly to meet the intentions of our democratic elections. And if our low 30% voter turnout continues into the next election, it could be used as a weapon by the Chinese government to ridicule us and to claim that the Tibetan government in exile is not legitimate since it lacks majority support or vote. We can expect blaring headlines in Chinese media, perhaps repeated by others outside, if the voter turnout is low. One of the most fitting responses to China’s claim to legitimacy is through use of the ballot box. For Tibetans voting in elections is not simply a civic duty but an action to legitimize the exiled Tibetan government as the legitimate representative of Tibet and the Tibetan people, and weaken the Chinese government’s colonial hold on Tibet and its assertion that it is the true representative of our people and disprove their claim that "the so-called 'Tibet government-in-exile' is utterly illegal. It can neither represent Tibet nor the Tibetan people." (Xinhua, 1, Feb. 2010)

Today, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, people are defying death to vote! In exile we don’t face such threats. However, as we know and 2008 proved so clearly, in Tibet Tibetans who raise their voices are quickly and harshly silenced. . Many paid with their lives and many others were imprisoned and remain in solitary confinement and death row because of their courage which made them speak out. They hope for freedom and wait for democracy. Now it is our turn to follow suit and make efforts to fulfill their and our dream. In the next election, we can stand up for ourselves and control our destiny.

Dr. Lobsang Sangay is a Senior Fellow at the East Asian Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School. He studied at CST Darjeeling, BA (Hons) and LLB in Delhi University and in 1992, was a member of the Central Executive of Tibetan Youth Congress (CENTREX). He did his LLM (Masters) in 1996, and in 2004 earned Ph.D. degree and became not only the first among six million Tibetans but also from Himalayan region including Bhutan, Nepal and Mongolia. After spending six years doing research mainly in Dharamsala, he wrote his doctorate dissertation on Democracy and History of Tibetan government in exile from 1959-2004 for which he was awarded Yong K. Kim 95 Special Award of Excellence. He also authored a book on Human Rights in Tibetan language. He travels around the world giving lectures on Tibet and has published in several journals and books and was selected as one of the twenty-four young leaders of Asia in 2006 by Asia Society based in New York, USA. He can be reached at losangsengye@gmail.com
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