By Choekyi Lhamo and Tenzin Dharpo
DHARAMSHALA, Apr. 11: Exile Tibetans cast their ballots in the final round of Sikyong (Presidential) and parliamentary (Chithue) elections on Sunday. More than 83,000 Tibetans in 26 countries across the across the world voted to choose the next head of the Tibetan polity, the two candidates in contention former Speaker Penpa Tsering and former NA representative Kelsang Dorjee Aukatsang.
The incumbent President Dr. Lobsang Sangay who came to vote along with his cabinet said, “We are sending a message directly to Beijing that there is no democracy in China and Tibetans in Tibet do not enjoy freedom, but under the great leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, we in exile have been given the gift of democracy.
“So today, it is a proud day where Tibetans all over the world come together to celebrate, participate and embrace democracy to show that we are refugees for political reasons. And also as human beings, we are as capable as any other citizen of democratic countries.”
Tibetans in Dharamshala, considered the virtual capital of the exile Tibetan diaspora cast their votes in 16 different polling booths including Gangchen Kyishong, Men-Tsee-Khang, TIPA, Yongling School, Norbulingka among others.
Although the Tibetan voters were spread across 26 countries around the world, their mandate circled primarily around candidates that can bolster unity among the Tibetans and reinvigorate the Tibetan struggle in the coming years.
Palden Sonam, a researcher at the Tibet Policy Institute (TPI), told Phayul about the important issues our future leader must confront, “I feel that our community is struggling with issues of regionalism that our future Sikyong should attempt to resolve. Unity is not about thinking the same thoughts, but a leader should be inclusive in order to lead our people in a direction that breaks the barriers of polarized factions that confront our community.
“Our struggles continue with the efforts of Tibetans suffering in Tibet, so we need to be cognizant about the work our administration is doing. I also think we need to rethink our strategies to pursue the Tibetan cause, as I’ve seen waning motivations towards the struggle in the past years.”
Tashi Dhondup, Secretary at the National Democratic Party of Tibet (NDPT) spoke to Phayul about the importance of the exile elections, “We are choosing 10 Chithue representatives and a Sikyong leader, and I think it is most important to choose them right so that we also have an efficient Kashag [Cabinet]. I voted today on the basis of the work experiences of the candidates, as per my own individual requirements for the leadership, as it is necessary for a democracy.
“I also think we cannot hold our government accountable if we choose not to vote in the elections; our right to criticize and the responsibility to vote go hand in hand.”
Pandemic and pressure
The 2021 Tibetan general elections despite the threat of the pandemic and pressure from a host country saw large number of voter registration and turnout. In Nepal, where Chinese government’s reach run deep saw ballots being confiscated by Nepalese authorities during the preliminary elections held in January. The election commissioner Pesur Wangdue Tsering said that all 26 countries around the world including Nepal have conducted the final round of the election. “I can announce happily that all the 26 different countries where we have conducted elections were operational and we hope that election proceeding run smoothly,” he told reporters on Sunday.
The Covid-19 pandemic’s resurgence and the resulting restrictions also posed challenges to voters around the world, particularly in France where a nation wide lockdown is in effect. The Tibetan community in France is currently under state lockdown have successfully liaised with French authorities through the Office of Tibet in Paris who secured permission to conduct the elections on Sunday.
“Tibet Bureau here discussed with the French authorities and got the assurance that Tibetans will not be fined if they have the paper from the Tibet Office. It is to prove that the bearer of this certificate is going to cast votes in the elections. The organizers here have divided the voters in different polling booths around Paris and the hour according to their Green Book number. This is to avoid too many people gathering at one time which is not allowed by the government,” Tenzin Namgyal from Paris told Phayul.
He further told Phayul about his decision to go to the polls, “When we look at the change that is happening around the world with regard to China and her relationship with democracies and different countries around the world, the fact that Tibetans in exile are participating in a democratic process is of great importance. It challenges the view China tries to portray about Tibet. It not only sends a message to the Chinese government but also to the democratic countries around the world that future Tibet will be a Tibet that is democratic, where it is the will of the people and not the rule of the few.”
Apart from the parliamentary election, the key focus has rested squarely on the Presidential election. Penpa Tsering, the former Spearker of the Tibetan parliament led the preliminary with 23,762 votes, many say will win the mandate of the Tibetan people this time around although Kelsang Dorjee Aukatsang who bagged 14,031 votes, defeating candidate Kasur Dolma Gyari with almost a thousand votes, carried out a comprehensive campaign.
The results of the final round of elections will be announced on May 14, 2021.