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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Kalon Tripa Election Reform

February 24, 2010

By Dr. Lobsang Sangay
February 23, 2010

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%).

Country    Total Eligible Voters (18 yrs)   Registered to Vote
Afghanistan: 57.79%                 83.66%
Australia: 82.74%          95.17%
Belgium:   86.00%                 91.08%
Bhutan:     61.81%          79.45%
Brazil:   83.54%          83.27%
Canada:   58.39%          64.94%
Czech Rep.    65.12%          64.47%
Denmark:    83.20%          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:  n/a                 64.72%
Italy:    79.13%                 80.54%
Japan:  66.62%                 67.46%
Latvia:   50.18%                 60.98%
Luxemburg:  56.50%          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%          77.70%
Spain:         77.20%          75.32%
Sri Lanka:  70.78%                  75.96%
Slovenia:  65.04%          63.10%
South Africa:  n/a                 77.30%
Taiwan:     56.8 %                 58.5%
United Kingdom: 58.32%         61.36%
USA            61.7%                 63.00%
Afghanistan 2009 presidential election turnout est. at 40+%
Tibet:            30.00%                 44.00%

Source: <>

[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.

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.

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
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