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Tibetan Parliament Beats the U.S. Senate by 59,904 Times

posted Sep 20, 2011, 7:11 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Sep 22, 2011, 7:03 AM ]
By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review
September 21, 2011

On September 16, 2011, the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile demonstrated a stunning efficiency in its approval of the six nominees for Kalon (Minister).  After apparently learning the identities of nominees for the very first time, and hearing their brief one-minute biographies, Parliament unanimously approved each nominee.  This was accomplished by the Speaker of Parliament, Penpa Tsering, checking if there were any objections, hearing silence, and then declaring the nominee confirmed.  This process lasted approximately 15 seconds per nominee.  As with past Kalon confirmations, Parliament did not know the specific portfolio for which each nominee was selected, nor was any nominee questioned or even physically present. 

The Tibetan Parliament’s efficiency is particularly awe-inspiring when we compare its lightning speed to the plodding pace of confirmation hearings in the United States Senate (often referred to as the “world’s greatest deliberative body”).  For example, in looking at Hillary Clinton’s confirmation as Secretary of State, we see a process that took 52 days.  The Tibetan Parliament was 59,904 times as fast.

We understand the motivation that probably led to Parliament’s complete deference to the executive, which we discuss below.  But we believe that critical questions of Tibetan democracy’s maturity are at stake.  We suggest that procedural changes in the Kalon confirmation process, geared towards enhancing the legitimacy of the Kalons in the public sphere, can only strengthen Tibetan democracy.

The Clinton Confirmation

We look at Hillary Clinton’s confirmation as Secretary of State because most TPR readers will be familiar with her, and because her confirmation process was normal for the U.S.  On December 1, 2008, President Obama informed the Senate of his nomination of Clinton to head the State Department.  For the next month and a half, Senate staffers and the media covered the ins and outs of Clinton’s nomination.  Clinton was also required to submit written responses to a series of questions from the Senate.  Then, on January 13, 2009, the Senate held a grueling six-hour televised confirmation hearing.

At this hearing, Clinton was made to explain her policies on important issues including human trafficking, the Law of the Sea Treaty, nation-building, Iran, China, Russia, and nuclear non-proliferation.  She was asked about her views on the State Department’s management and resources.  She was repeatedly pressed on a perceived conflict of interest related to Bill Clinton’s foundation.

The Senate met later to debate her nomination, and finally confirmed her on January 21, 2009.  It may be beneficial for the Tibetan Parliament to look more closely at the example of U.S. Senate confirmation proceedings.

Better Democracy for the Tibetan People

In looking at the back-and-forth of Clinton’s confirmation, we are reminded of a comment that His Holiness the Dalai Lama sometimes makes about democracy.  His Holiness recalls that when he first visited Beijing in 1954, he saw the Chinese National People’s Congress in session and noticed how orderly the proceedings were, with the delegates asking no questions and all in agreement.  Then in 1956, His Holiness witnessed the raucous debates in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament.  In His Holiness’s retelling, the lively Indian Parliament was the real democracy.

Getting back to confirmation hearings, what do the American people gain through a lengthy process involving investigation, questions, answers, and debate?  They gain a stronger democracy.  Real democracy is not intended to be lightning-quick, nor is it supposed to timidly avoid questions to prevent all possible offense.  Strong democracy involves open and unapologetic debate.  Strong democracy depends on checks and balances to keep the system functioning properly.

This is the same attitude that probably drove the Buddha to encourage his disciples to test his teachings as they would test gold, accepting nothing without thinking.

We are sure that the Tibetan Parliament was well-intentioned when it unquestioningly approved the new Kashag (Cabinet).  Parliament was probably trying to ease the path of the new administration led by the new Kalon Tripa, Lobsang Sangay.  Indeed, Sangay stated that he is “delighted” with the Parliament’s “cooperation.”  Unfortunately, in the long run Parliament is not doing anyone any favors by failing to do its duty.  His Holiness’s devolution of political power means that the Tibetan people’s democratic institutions must now stand on their own feet.

We share a desire for the Tibetan Administration to be successful, but we believe that it is dangerous for Parliament to confuse “cooperation” with a dereliction of its duty to the larger Tibetan democratic system.  Parliament is a separate branch of government from the executive.  Its duty includes serving as a check on the other two branches, and its loyalty should be to the entire Tibetan electorate.

Hopefully, now that Parliament has eased the way for the new executive, it will begin to act more as a confident and coequal branch of government.

Proposed Changes for Kalon Confirmation Process

One way Parliament can do this is to reform the procedures for the next time it confirms a Kashag, likely in five years.  Under Article 21 of the Tibetan Charter, Parliament can make laws regarding the confirmation of Kalons.  Parliament should consider a law mandating a procedure similar to the following:
1. The Kalon Tripa informs Parliament of his or her Kashag nominees, including the specific portfolio for which each Kalon is nominated.

2. Parliament (or likely the Standing Committee) issues a set of written questions to each nominee, and answers must be submitted within a set time period.

3. If Parliament desires further answers, Parliament has the right to call each nominee to answer questions in person or, if Parliament consents, via videoconference.  Given the reality of the full Parliament meeting only twice a year, questions will likely be asked by the Standing Committee.

4. Then, during the Monsoon session of the full Parliament, each Kalon nominee will be debated and voted upon.  If approved, the nominee will be approved for the specific portfolio for which they were nominated.

5. If any nominee is not approved, the Kalon Tripa will submit another nominee to Parliament under the same timeline as before; the confirmation vote will be held by the Standing Committee if the full Parliament is not in session.

Even from the perspective of the current new Kalons, it would have helped their legitimacy if they had gone through a rigorous confirmation process.  The nominees were unfortunately denied a valuable opportunity to show the Tibetan people their policies and qualifications, and instill a sense of public confidence in the new Kashag.  Moreover, a rigorous confirmation process would have avoided the optics of the Tibetan Parliament looking like a rubber stamp to the outside world.  Therefore, we hope that Parliament will re-dedicate itself to the collective task of strengthening the institutions of Tibetan democracy.


* Speaking of Kalons, Part I (August 31, 2011) is available here

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