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Where Does the Money Come From?: Why Tibetan Democracy Needs Campaign Finance Transparency

posted Jan 22, 2011, 6:10 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Jan 24, 2011, 6:20 AM ]

By the Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political Review


We are happy to report that there has been progress since our November 2010 editorial, A Call for Campaign Finance Transparency, in which we concluded:
We expect that there will be resistance to this proposal among the candidates. On the other hand, a candidate who embraces campaign finance transparency as part of his or her platform should be rewarded by the voters. Additionally, we propose that the Standing Committee of the Parliament immediately consult with the Election Commission, and pass legislation mandating campaign finance disclosure effective for the current election cycle. 
First, we have been advised by the Tibetan Election Commission that it shares many of our concerns on the importance of preventing the negative influence of hidden money on our democracy.  In fact, the Election Commission informs us that it is working on proposed campaign finance rules.  Unfortunately, those rules will not be ready to present to the Parliament-in-Exile in time to affect the current 2011 elections.  Still, future elections will be made more transparent, and this is a very positive development for Tibetan democracy.

In another positive development, all three Kalon Tripa candidates have made some form of voluntary disclosure regarding their campaign finances.  Below, we examine the pros and cons of all three candidates' approaches to this issue.

Tenzin Namgyal Tethong

We start with Tethong, who was the first candidate to voluntarily disclose his campaign finances.  He has disclosed US$29,978 raised at public events for Tibetan communities in San Francisco, Toronto, Washington DC, Boston, New York, London, and Zurich.  Donors are not listed by name, but the public nature of the fundraising events means this is not necessary.

Tethong's campaign has also stated some of the places where the funds will go: travel costs for campaign trips in India and Nepal, the production and distribution of campaign materials, and support for a campaign office in Dharamsala.

Regarding travel to date, Tethong’s campaign stated that his travel to the Zurich and Portland debates was paid by the Tibetan Youth Association-Europe and the Portland Tibetan Association, respectively.  His travel to Minesota, Madison, Portland, Seattle, Washington DC, Toronto, Boston, and Amherst was paid for by "his supporters" who invited him.  Tethong also stated that he paid personally for his travel to Bylakuppe for that debate.

The most important disclosure issue related to Tethong’s accounts is not the fault of Tethong’s campaign itself, and its resolution must actually come through strengthening the institutions of Tibetan democracy generally:  In a system currently reliant on voluntary disclosure, the voters have no assurance of accuracy and completeness.  Given Tethong’s ample public fundraising, we have no reason to suspect that he has any undisclosed sources of funding.  However, the Tibetan voters deserve more than trust.  They deserve verification.  That is why we re-emphasize our belief that the Election Commission must be given the power to audit candidates’ financial disclosures for accuracy and completeness.

Another gap in Tethong’s full disclosure -– one that he can and should fix himself -– relates to contributions in-kind.  The value of such donations should be disclosed since they are equivalent to cash.  Also, the identity of the in-kind donors should be disclosed (with an obvious exception for minimal values) because these donations were not given in public view.

Lastly, it would be helpful to see a much more detailed breakdown of campaign expenses, which is the other side of the ledger from campaign income.  Currently we know that the funds will go toward travel, campaign materials, and Tethong’s Dharamsala campaign office, but there is no further detail.  Candidates in countries such as the United States must show both sides of the ledger, and the same should apply to our candidates as well.

Tashi Wangdi

Wangdi was the second candidate to voluntarily disclose his campaign finances.  His campaign sent TPR two spreadsheets so far detailing the income from a "town hall" event held for the Tibetan community in New York (US$5,969), and some non-public contributions ($2,800).  As with Tethong, Wangdi does not provide donors’ names for his fundraising event, but again this is fine because it was public.  However, Wangdi also does not disclose the donors’ identities for the non-public contributions.  This is an issue that should be addressed by the campaign.

Wangdi's spreadsheet also showed costs for the town hall event ($2,486), as well as costs for printing press releases and banners ($110) and for running ads in Phayul ($528).  The campaign also sent a total of $2,970 to two named individuals in India for “campaign expenses.”  We applaud Wangdi for giving a relatively detailed breakdown of both the income and expense side of the ledger.  Having said that, we also call on Wangdi to elaborate on the vague “campaign expenses” item.

The Wangdi campaign also stated that the cost of its website, and of printing posters and fliers during the primary election, was borne by "supporters." As with Tethong, contributions in-kind should be public.  The value of such contributions should be disclosed, as well as the donors’ identities (since the contributions were not given in public).

Also, as with Tethong, the biggest disclosure shortfall is one that only the Parliament-in-Exile can fix: i.e. pass a law providing for an independent audit of full campaign accounts.

Lobsang Sangay

Sangay’s disclosure is qualitatively different than that of the other two candidates, and more complicated to address.  He stated in a letter to supporters that he has found it “unnecessary” to raise funds.  He asserted that his international travel is paid for by “organizations that organize debates and other forums related to the election,” and campaign materials are paid for by “friends and supporters.”  He also said that his expenses in India are “relatively small and affordable.”

While we of course take Sangay at his word, we must note that his statement leaves many open questions that are not good for democracy.  He has not actually stated whether he has received funds, only saying that it has been unnecessary to raise funds.  He implies -- but does not actually say -- that he himself has paid the “small and affordable” expenses in India.  He does not identify the “friends” who paid for campaign materials, or disclosed the monetary value of this support.  And he is vague on the “organizations” and “forums” that have paid his travel costs.

We do not like to make such lawyerly parsing of statements, and we do not question Sangay’s truthfulness.  But we trust that Sangay will agree with us that Tibetan democracy is not strengthened by allowing a precedent for such a vague disclosure.

Sangay should therefore state unequivocally whether or not he or his campaign has received any campaign funds, and if so from whom.  This is too important an issue for Tibetan democracy to allow a future candidate, who may be less trustworthy than Sangay, to hide undisclosed donors behind vague words.  Again, this is ultimately an imperative that independent auditing by the Election Commission can best enforce.

Like the other two candidates, Sangay should also disclose the value of donated travel and other in-kind contributions, and the names of all such donors.  It is completely acceptable for a campaign to accept in-kind contributions, but there must be transparency for the public to know who gives.

Sangay should also address an apparent conflict between his vague statement above on international travel expenses, and a different explanation that he gave to RFA.  During a recent RFA interview [click here to listen at 27:35], Sangay stated that his international travels are paid for by Harvard, also commenting that Harvard is the wealthiest school in the world.  Based on this, it appears that Harvard may pay for Sangay to fly to India to attend events related to his work, and then he takes side trips around India to campaign.  Our concern with Sangay's approach is two-fold, beyond the apparent incongruity with his other statement:

First, this approach potentially creates an unethical conflict of interests.  According to Harvard's ethics rules, staff may not "design or modify their research and teaching activities in ways that significantly and inappropriately benefit their external activities."  Given the impressive extent of Sangay’s campaigning in India, it is important for him to assure voters that this activity did not influence the planning of his official Harvard travel, in violation of Harvard’s ethics rules.

Second, Sangay’s discussion of his funding from “wealthy” Harvard risks confusing voters and violating another Harvard ethical rule.  This rule states that staff must "assure that the Harvard name is used in a manner that does not imply University endorsement" for outside activities.  Sangay would surely not intentionally suggest that his candidacy is endorsed by Harvard.  However, there is a risk that some Tibetan voters in India might misinterpret Sangay's statement to mean that his candidacy is in fact backed by a prestigious and wealthy Western "jindak" (sponsor).  Sangay has an ethical responsibility to prevent this.


As we previously wrote, “political contributions can be perfectly legitimate practices, but only when the public can see who is pulling the strings."  So far, two candidates have made good but imperfect disclosures that require independent verification and, in the case of the second candidate, information on non-public donors’ identities.  The third candidate has stated that fundraising has been “unnecessary,” leaving some important open questions.  The third candidate has also made conflicting statements about how he pays for his international travel, which also raises two ethical issues as stated above.

We believe that these mixed results show the limits of a system of campaign finance transparency based on voluntary disclosure and lacking independent verification.  The only way to ensure full, comprehensive, and verified disclosure is if the Parliament-in-Exile empowers the Election Commission by passing legislation to audit candidates’ required full financial disclosures.

Is such a step necessary?  We believe so.  It is a good sign that our Tibetan democracy has advanced to a point where candidates are raising funds and actively campaigning for votes.  However, our young democracy remains fragile, and our society still faces serious external and internal threats.  In order to protect the sanctity, legitimacy, and transparency of our voting process, all candidates, voters, and lawmakers should join together on campaign finance transparency, an issue that goes to the heart of our democracy.