On Friday, December 17, 2010, I attended an event for Kalon Tripa candidate, Kasur Tenzin Namgyal Tethong, here in the Washington, D.C. area. Even though some of us are familiar with Kasur Tethong’s background it was a good reminder of the contributions that Tibetans of his generation have made in the past. He reiterated his determination, if elected as the Kalon Tripa, the Chairman of the Tibetan Cabinet.
Over the weekend I took the time to reflect on developments in the Tibetan election process. Although competitive election system is not something new to the Tibetans in exile, yet until this election cycle it has more or less been a tame affair. In the past candidates have sought recourse to direct and indirect campaigning but they did this mostly through word of mouth or informal channels. Therefore, it is praise worthy that now we are seeing open and organized campaigning by and on behalf of candidates (mostly in the Kalon Tripa elections than in the parliamentary elections). This is certainly an indication of increased political awareness and the result of Tibetans taking advantage of development in the field of information technology.
As we move forward in our ongoing Tibetan election process I feel there are some issues that the Tibetan voting public needs to be mindful of. I am saying this because we are taking baby steps in a more aggressive version of competitive elections with all the unforeseen possible consequences.
First, the candidates and their campaigners need to be mindful of the fact that the territory of Tibetan democracy in exile is not physical. All the voters are residents of (with some even being citizens of) countries in the Indian subcontinent as well as some other Asian and Western countries. Therefore, we have to act according to our situation and cannot copy everything that other democracies, particularly the developed Western democracies, do. We should be particularly careful to adapt to the environment of the host society and act accordingly. In a sense, we have to operate under the overall framework of what I call democracy with Tibetan characteristics.
Secondly, the candidates and those who are campaigning on their behalf need to be mindful of the fact that the current competitive election has the risk of taking a negative turn in personal relationship unless everyone starts taking things in the right perspective. I may not be exaggerating if I say that nearly half of the voting population may either know each other or know someone who knows them. As ours is a small community we cannot afford the comparatively small pool of possible public servants being infected by animosity and the atmosphere be vitiated for a considerable period of time because of this.
I am saying this because of two reasons. Quite a few of the writings by people who say they are supporters of the candidates contain baseless rumors, personal attacks and character assassination. When individuals indulge in such behavior they do not reflect well on the candidates. Also, they create unnecessary stress in personal relations in our small community. This is also true in the case of those among the voting public who align themselves with one candidate or another. To put this in perspective, we can only look at what happens in the United States every four years when personal relationships among senior politicians undergo a stress because of their alignment with one or the other presidential candidate even within the same political party. The disruption in the relationship takes a long time to be healed. If this is the situation in a developed democracy like the United States we need to see that the Tibetan society adopts the right perspective so that we can, if possible, avoid the pitfalls or, if not, minimize the negative impact.
From the tone of the remarks made by some of the people during the evening with Kasur Tenzin Tethong, it was clear that they too were aware of this possible stress in the personal relationship. Some were making very clear that they have personal friendship with all other candidates; others were doing this in less obvious ways. This is understandable because from current indication (although the Election Commission has not formally announced the final names) all the candidates are personally known to most of us and open alignment with one candidate or the other is somewhat of a dilemma in itself.
Thirdly, the candidates and their open supporters should be mindful of not falling prey to factionalism on account of campaigning needs. In the past, the Tibetans, particularly the younger generation, have blamed regionalism and sectarianism as the bane of Tibetan politics. During the current Kalon Tripa election process while some feel these may still be playing a role, I think fanaticism could lead to factionalism unless we are all alert. Although in general having strange bedfellows is nothing new in politics, the Tibetan society cannot afford to be struggling with yet one more issue that could divert strength and energy from the main focus.
While democracy is a wonderful creation that supports the empowerment of individuals, I feel to us Tibetans it is only a means and not the end. Therefore, we need to be cautious to avoid these potential pitfalls as we wait for the Tibetan Election Commission to announce the final candidates when vigorous discussions could begin on who can best fit the elected positions. What we need is discussion on issues and where the candidates stand on them, with no irrelevant reference to personalities.