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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."

Personality v. Policy

August 26, 2010

Editorial Board
The Tibetan Political Review
August 23, 2010

Of all the potential Kalon Tripa and Chitue
candidates, little is yet known about what they
actually stand for.  That is because, so far, the
statements by and about the candidates have been
largely about the candidates themselves, rather
than what policies they would implement if
elected. This is a problem that Tibetan democracy
must address if it is to mature.

To put this situation into a purposefully
provocative analogy: it is the difference between
grade-school children electing their most popular
member as class president, and a mature and
forward-thinking society debating its future direction.

The Tibetan exile polity is not the first society
to have faced such growing pains, and there are
numerous lessons to be drawn from other
nations.  As one of the TPR editors recently
wrote, one philosopher that Tibetans should look
to is the great German sociologist Max Weber.

Weber wrote that there are three types of
political authority: charismatic, traditional,
and rational-legal.  Maturing societies tend to
move along a continuum, away from charismatic and
traditional authority, toward rational-legal authority.

* Charismatic authority is that of an exceptional religious or heroic leader.

* Traditional authority is based on the concept
that things have always been done a certain way.

* Rational-legal authority is based on
institutions rather than personalities, and
promotes bureaucracies defined by rationality and legal legitimacy.

In a society based on charismatic authority
(assuming it is a democracy), candidates tend to
play up personal qualities like "honesty,"
"sincerity," or "patriotism," divorced from the
larger political issues facing the
polity.  Similarly, in a system based on
traditional authority, candidates allege their
fidelity to an established system.

Obviously, it is not wrong per se for a candidate
to be heroic or traditional. In the United
States, the war hero George Washington proved to
be an excellent president, even while the war
hero Zachary Taylor proved an ineffectual
one.  The problem with focusing on these factors
is that they detract from focusing on the big
picture: stripping away the personality, what is the policy?

This is where rational-legal authority comes in.
The foundation of the modern state,
rational-legal authority rests on principles like
the rule of law, described by John Adams as the
idea of "a government of laws and not men."  It
embraces the idea that the state is bigger than
any man or woman; the opposite of Louis XIV’s
probably apocryphal statement, "L'État, c'est moi" ("I am the State").

In this view, the fate of the government does not
depend on the exceptionalism of the leader, but
rather on the policies and institutions that the
leader can help shape but are ultimately bigger than him or her.

The current Tibetan election, by contrast, sees
almost all the discussion about which candidate
would be "best" based on his or her personal
qualities.  Among these qualities:  "an insider,"
"an outsider," "experienced," "educated,"
"young," "a woman," "dedicated," and "from this
or that region or sect." Indeed, it is doubtful
if the supporters of any particular candidate can
clearly articulate what their favored candidate actually stands for.

This is not necessarily the fault of the
supporters. While some policy proposals have
leaked out in drips during the recent Kalon Tripa
debates, the candidates have largely been silent
on substance.  For example, in the recent
Portland debate between Phurbu Dorjee, Lobsang
Sangay, and Tenzin Namgyal Tethong, when
specifically asked by a member of the audience
(in a two-part question) for their concrete
policy positions, all three candidates avoided responding.

Similarly, the NDPT recently endorsed Ven.
Thubten Wangchen as one of two European Chitue
members, but was entirely silent on kusho-la's
views, or how he might represent European
Tibetans in the Tibetan Parliament.  The voters
deserve more.  For example, the NDPT should have
mentioned kusho-la’s participation in the
ground-breaking Spanish genocide lawsuit against
several Chinese officials, and the candidate’s
resulting view on the best approach towards the Chinese government.

These are just a few examples of the unfortunate
tendency to play up a candidate’s personal
qualities rather than policy positions, as if the
2011 Tibetan election were simply a popularity
contest.  The real loser is Tibetan society as a
whole, which is deprived of a much-needed mature
debate over the future of the nation. Moreover,
Tibetans in exile surely want to send a more
inspirational message to our brethren inside
Tibet about the ability of the Tibetan people to
flourish in democracy and freedom.

What does this mean for the Tibetan voters?  By
all means, it is appropriate to look at the
candidates’ biographies; we should examine their
past for clues about their experience, education,
dedication, trustworthiness, and vision.  But
this is not enough. The voters should also demand
that the candidates get serious and enunciate
their policies and electoral platforms. Indeed,
the voters should make clear that this
enunciation is a condition precedent for
electoral support. As the voters consider the
next leader to steer the "ship of state" in
Dharamsala, remember: what use is a good captain
if he will not take you where you want to go?

Note: TPR has posted a list of questions for the
Kalon Tripa candidates. So far at least two
candidates have committed to responding.  All
responses received by the September 2 deadline
will be posted on the TPR website.
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