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Are we headed to “Democracy with Dharamsala characteristics”?

posted Mar 2, 2016, 6:11 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Mar 3, 2016, 7:45 AM ]

By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review

As Tibetans in exile prepare to elect a Sikyong and Chitues on March 20, this election season has been historic.  But not in the way that was hoped.  Never since before direct election of the prime minister has a Tibetan election fallen so short of the ideals of fairness and legitimacy.  Never before has there been such uproar over arbitrary election rules.  Never before have long-time Tibet supporters written to the CTA protesting “undemocratic practices.”  And never before has a prominent U.S. Congressman warned that the CTA is acting “anti-democratically.”

We do not write this lightly.  Anyone familiar with our past editorials knows that, for five years, TPR has sought to provide analysis that is opinionated but not hyperbolical.  Yet there are times when the facts lead to an unpleasant conclusion.   We believe – with sadness but with certitude – that this is such a time. The reasons for our conclusion are as follows.

Arbitrary Rules, Imposed After-the-Fact

An election, like a football (or soccer) match, requires certain conditions for the outcome to be legitimate.  The rules of the game must be clear before the match starts, and cannot apply to one team differently than another.  The referee must be impartial and treat all players equally.  The goalposts cannot be moved after playing starts.  A neutral party must keep score.  Only then does winning actually mean anything.

From this perspective, the current Sikyong election process has been deeply and disturbingly flawed (the Chitue election by contrast seems to have been run perhaps more fairly, but not a great deal better – e.g. the bizarre creation of “voluntary” candidacies that allowed bypassing the primary election).<1>  The process has consistently favored the incumbents, and has ensured that all challengers were frozen out.

The most egregious example is that the Tibetan Election Commission (EC) announced a new rule a day after the primary vote: there would only be two candidates on the final ballot, unless the third candidate reached a certain vote threshold in the primary vote.  The primary vote was October 18, 2015, and the rule was announced on October 19.
<2>  By that time, media outlets like Tibet Sun had already been reporting running vote tallies from many of the settlements in India, and it was basically clear how the preliminary voting would turn out.

The effect of the arbitrary new rule, announced after the vote result was clear, was that the final ballot was limited to the two incumbents: Lobsang Sangay and Penpa Tsering.  All the challengers were frozen out, including the third-place winner, the pro-rangzen candidate Lukar Jam.

This must be compared to the 2011 election, when the Election Commission (with different members back then) allowed all six primary candidates to stand for the final ballot.<3>  Three of the candidates voluntarily withdrew, and by mid-January 2011 the Election Commission had announced the three candidates on the final ballot.<4>  The number-three candidate in 2011, Tashi Wangdi, went ahead to the final ballot after getting fewer votes (by both number and percentage) than Lukar Jam gathered in the current primary vote.

Unequal Rules

As we said, in a football match or an election, the rules cannot apply to one team differently than another.   The referee must be impartial and treat all players equally.  This did not happen in this election.

We previously wrote about the EC’s outrageous creation of a two-tiered system of free speech rights.<5>  We will not repeat our critique here.

We only note that when the Tibetan National Congress (TNC) asked the EC for recognition so it could support candidates the same way that officially-recognized groups supported the incumbents, the EC passed the buck to the Kashag (Cabinet).<6>  TNC dutifully asked the Kashag for recognition on September 2 (ironically, Tibetan Democracy Day).<7>  Since then, the Kashag has been ignoring this reasonable request, thereby ensuring that non-incumbents remain hobbled in the election race.

A delegation of foreign election monitors issued a report that echoes these concerns.  The delegation was very diplomatic, but it called for “leveling the playing field of campaign finance and allowing all independent and outside the recognized groups to campaign for a candidate in order to avoid accusations of partisanship and to strength the fairness of the campaign finance rules.”<8>  From the beginning of the campaign season, this unequal rule has benefitted the incumbent candidates and harmed the non-incumbents.  This almost surely impacted the outcome of the primary vote.

A Non-Impartial (or Sleeping?) Referee

A fair football match or election requires an impartial referee.  In this election, the EC flippantly dismissed the claim by Tashi Wangdu, a non-incumbent candidate, that an incumbent candidate was violating the EC’s rule against use of official resources for campaign purposes.<9>   

The EC has similarly been asleep in not policing other violations, especially the incumbents’ use of official travel to campaign, and their unpermitted use of images of His Holiness and the Tibetan flag on their campaign literature.<10>  Under the EC’s rules, both Lobsang Sangay and Penpa Tsering should have had 5% of their vote tallies nullified for these violations.<11>  This has not happened.

The incumbents’ apparent misuse of official travel for campaign purposes was even raised in the Tibetan Parliament, but the official response by the Kashag was as dismissive as that of the EC.<12> 

 It may be difficult to divine the EC’s intentions in not enforcing its own rules against apparent violations by the incumbents.  But whether it is purposefully biased or simply asleep, the effect is the same.  What’s the point of having rules that aren’t enforced?

In fact, the only time the EC has risen from its slumber was shortly after an alarming letter from U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (more on that below).   The Rohrabacher letter was issued on February 3, 2016.  On February 6, the EC sent a letter to local election officials, reminding them to make sure any office-holder does not engage in any campaign activity.  The EC’s letter added that the EC had received complaints that the Representative at the Office of Tibet in Washington DC was engaging in improper campaign activity (presumably on behalf of Lobsang Sangay) on official trips.   Was this timing a strange coincidence?
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Then as if the EC was determined to show how ridiculous this election has become, it issued a second letter on February 17 backpedaling from the first letter.  This letter was addressed to the Representative, and stated that the EC’s first letter was not a public notice to state that he had violated election rules, but was merely addressed to local election officials.  The EC told the Representative not to feel sad (lo pham) over the previous letter, and that the EC has not indicted him.  The backstory to this absurd situation is unclear, but it suggests either an EC who cannot get its act together, or political pressure being brought to bear on a supposedly “independent” entity of the CTA.

(Click to Enlarge)
Of course under Rule 8 of the EC’s new regulations, if the EC had not backpedaled from the charges in its first letter, it could have been disastrous for Lobsang Sangay’s election campaign.  A finding that the Representative improperly campaigned on behalf of Mr. Sangay (for example) would require that, in all the cities where this took place, all the “votes received for the candidate in that place shall all be declared null and void.”<13>  So considering this outcome, one could imagine the backroom pressure the EC might have been under to “reconsider”.

Questionable Scorekeeper

There are also reasons to wonder about the scorekeeper in this election; maybe not its integrity, but at least its diligence.  For example, on October 22, 2015, the regional Election Commission in Dharamsala issued an official tally of the primary vote, signed by 12 commissioners.  However, Lukar Jam later noted that he had voted for pro-rangzen activist Jamyang Norbu, and Norbu’s name was not on the list.

The commission quickly issued another list showing four additional individuals – including Jamyang Norbu – had received one vote each.  A note stated that the commission had “forgotten” to print the second page of the official tally (not addressing why these four names weren’t included on the original page, which had plenty of space at the bottom).  The second list was signed by 10 (not 12) commissioners.

“Forgetting” to print the full list – when signing and certifying official results – should raise alarm bells as to whether the scorekeepers are being adequately diligent.  Even well-funded democracies sometimes have troubles with counting votes (look at the Florida election mess during Bush v. Gore), so some troubles are understandable.  But in the context of the numerous other problems in this election, this development does not give greater confidence in the system.

In another particularly absurd development, one of the local Election Commissioners in Dharamsala (Mr. Sonam Dorjee) also happens to be a candidate for Chitue.  Photographs even show him (with no apparent irony) handling the ballots of other voters.  While Mr. Dorjee is likely an honorable man, the problem is obvious and has nothing to do with the specific individual in question. 

Dorjee’s was not the only case.  In Ladakh, the local Election Commissioner is also a Chithue candidate.  It so happened that he scored the highest vote count with over a thousand votes margin between him and the second position holder.  This reportedly happened by asking the people to write only one name – instead of up to ten names – on the ballot paper, and that name, as seen from the result, was his.

No candidate in an election should ever be one of the voting overseers.  The fact that this happened even in the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile therefore speaks volumes about the EC’s functioning.

Outside Criticism 

In an unprecedented development, a group of 27 long-time Tibet supporters sent an open letter to Sikyong Sangay, his Kashag, and the EC expressing deep concern over some of the EC’s rules and the way the Kashag was acting.<14> 
 Signatories include the founder of SFT, a longtime president of ICT, and the Spanish lawyer who was responsible for Hu Jintao being indicted for genocide in Tibet.  These are people with a long and proven dedication to the Tibetan cause. 

This letter should be read in its entirety.  The letter warns that, given such “undemocratic” tactics, Tibet Support Group (TSG) support should not be taken for granted by Dharamsala.  In the three-decade history of TSGs, there has never been a letter like this before.  Accusations of rights violations have, until now, always been directed at Beijing not Dharamsala.

The Kashag didn’t respond to this letter.  The EC’s response – that the Tibetan democracy cannot be compared to other democratic systems<15> – was a moment of shame.  The implication was that Tibetans in exile aren’t capable of running a “real” democracy, which is clearly false considering that past elections went just fine.  It was also disturbingly close to the relativism that Tibetans rightly denounce when coming from the Chinese government.

Similarly, it is important to read the letter on the same topic sent by Congressman Rohrabacher to the U.S. Secretary of State and Director of USAID.<16>  As the co-founder of the Congressional Tibet Caucus, Congressman Rohrabacher has a long history with the Tibet movement.  So when he warns that U.S. funding for the CTA may be at risk, Tibetans should take note.

Tibetans would undoubtedly prefer to resolve these issues internally, and avoid involvement from outsiders (no matter how supportive).  However, the situation seems to have gotten to a point that outside involvement is perhaps not surprising.  And it is unseemly for Tibetans to decry “interference in internal affairs” as if we were using Beijing’s favorite way to avoid valid criticism based on universal values.

Why Did this Happen?

We believe that an independent investigation should be carried out as to why this debacle has happened (but we are not holding our breath).  Tibetans have been directly electing the prime minister since 2001 and Chitues well before that, but this is the first time that these problems have been so bad.  Why?

One area to look into is the process by which the three Election Commissioners were appointed.  Is there a better selection process?  Should there be certain objective criteria for being qualified to join an entity charged with being the guardian of Tibetan democracy?

Also needing exploration is whether the Election Commission’s rulemaking process needs to be brought under some control.  In normal democracies, rulemaking by a regulatory body must be pursuant to clear statutory authority, with the legislature establishing policies, goals, and limited tools to get there.  The regulator is tasked with implementing this delegated authority, not with creating rules out of thin air.  Moreover, a legitimate rulemaking process has public input, open deliberation, advance notice, and an opportunity for judicial review if the regulator exceeds its authority.  None of this exists in the current situation.

A third possibility is that the rangzen/umelam divide has reached a truly poisonous stage.  That is probably the topic for another discussion, but we urge readers to consider what needs to be done to heal this unnecessary divide.  It certainly does not help that the only pro-rangzen candidate was excluded through after-the-fact rule changes, thereby denying the electorate any choice on this issue.

A fourth area to look into (which is not mutually exclusive with the previous ones) is whether there is anything that the current Kashag or Parliamentary leadership did to contribute to this unprecedented situation.  This is the first election held under the current administration’s watch.  Sikyong Sangay has certainly  promoted some divisive rhetoric on the rangzen/umelam issue.<17>  So has Speaker Tsering, who has made bigoted and intolerant comments regarding rangzen supporters.  Not only that, his public comment that he will refuse to sit in debate with fellow candidate Lukar Jam (who was still in the running then) pandered to the basest nature of ultra-conservatives in our society, and will be seen in the future as a moment of shame for Tibetan democracy.

What Now?

The current Election Commission, far from being the independent protector of Tibetan democracy, has reduced itself to a laughingstock.  The electoral process has become so tainted as to call into question the fundamental issue of legitimacy.  And the incumbent leadership has been notable in their willingness to quietly benefit from (and perhaps quietly influence) this unfair system.  This is shameful.

Some may take issue with our direct criticism, but we do not make it lightly.  We believe that the facts are there for all to see, and only one question remains: whether the Tibetan people will speak up to demand better of their democracy.  It is harmful in the long run to pretend a problem doesn't exist.  The Tibetan people in exile deserve better.  And we collectively owe it to His Holiness’s vision of democracy, and to the people inside occupied Tibet.

Whichever candidate is elected Sikyong on March 20, he will be inaugurated under the cloud of a tainted election and therefore tainted legitimacy.  It is a tragedy that it has come to this.  We can only hope that, over the next five years, Tibetan exile democracy revives itself so that the 2021 Sikyong election is conducted in such a way that can make the Tibetan people proud.  There is a lot of work to be done, but surely the Tibetan people are up to the task.

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* The title of this piece is inspired by an article by Neil Steedman, entitled Will Tibetans in Exile Accept 'Democracy with Tibetan Refugee Characteristics'? -- a play on the Chinese government's "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics".


1 http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.org/editorials/thenorthamericanchituerace

2 http://bod.asia/2015/10/%E0%BD%A6%E0%BE%A4%E0%BE%B1%E0%BD%B2%E0%BC%8B%E0%BD%A0%E0%BD%90%E0%BD%B4%E0%BD%A6%E0%BC%8B%E0%BD%91%E0%BD%84%E0%BC%8B%E0%BD%A6%E0%BE%B2%E0%BD%B2%E0%BD%91%E0%BC%8B%E0%BD%A6%E0%BE%90%E0%BE%B1%E0%BD%BC/ 

3 http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.org/project-updates/ecdeclaresprelimelectionresultsfortibetanparliamentandkalontripa

4 http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.org/project-updates/tibetanelectioncommissionregistersmorethan3200votersafterfreshregistration

5 http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.com/editorials/tibetanelectionprocess

6 http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.com/articles/anopenletterfromtibetannationalcongressinresponsetothetibetanelectioncommission

7 http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.com/articles/anopenlettertosikyonglobsangsangaytorecognizethetibetannationalcongress

8 http://www.phayul.com/news/article.aspx?id=36633&article=Election+watchdog+lauds+Tibetan+electoral+process

9 http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.com/editorials/tibetanelectionprocess

10 http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.com/editorials/tibetanelectionprocess

11 http://tibet.net/2015/09/election-commission-explains-penalties-for-violation-of-electoral-regulations/

12 http://www.tibetonline.tv/15th-tpie-10th-session-sept-2015/ day 7 part 3, from 50:40 onwards.

13 http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.org/articles/ecrules--codeofconductfor2016exiletibetanelections

14 http://tibet.org/openletter/

15 http://tibet.net/2015/10/clarification-to-the-group-of-tibet-supporters-who-have-expressed-concerns-about-the-tibetan-election-process-in-the-media-dated-13-october-2015/

16 https://rohrabacher.house.gov/sites/rohrabacher.house.gov/files/documents/Kerry%20letter%20re%20Tibet.pdf

17 http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.org/editorials/stumblingtowardamorelevel-headeddebateonindependencevautonomyin2014

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