Friday, March 17, 2006

Tibetan Exiles Vote for Premier and Assembly

Dharamsala, March 17 (AFP) - Tibetan exiles around the world go to the polls to elect a prime minister and a new parliament as their leader the Dalai Lama seeks greater autonomy for the Chinese-ruled homeland.

It is the final round of polls to elect members of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, a consultative body which supports the spiritual leader's campaign.

It is a preliminary election for prime minister but only the second time that Tibetan exiles are participating in popular elections for a "kalon tripa". The first direct vote for a prime minister was held in 2001.

More than 82,000 of the 100,000 Tibetans living in exile have registered to vote and 80 candidates are in the fray.

"Everything is going as planned," said Tenzing Dhargyal, additional secretary at the election commission. "All the regional election officers have been trained in election procedures through workshops."

The 46-member Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies is headquartered in the northern Indian hill station of Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama settled in 1959 after a failed uprising against Beijing's rule in Lhasa.

The parliament, formed in 1962 and intended to serve as a model of self-government for the homeland, was expanded from 1990 and given independent authority.

It was empowered to elect a cabinet of seven ministers who now explain and defend their polices before the assembly. While a section of Tibetan exiles demand a totally independent Tibet, the differences do not spill over in the assembly.

Incumbent prime minister Samdong Rinpoche, a monk who has taught Buddhist philosophy in the Indian holy city of Varanasi for 30 years, is favourite to be re-elected. He is a staunch supporter of the Dalai Lama's "middle path" approach in dealing with China.

The Dalai Lama frequently reiterates that the Tibetan people want self-rule but not independence from China.

"I have only one demand: self-rule and genuine autonomy for all Tibetans," he said in a statement last month.

A final round of voting to elect the prime minister will take place on June 3 with the results expected a month later. Assembly results are due in early April.

China and envoys of the Dalai Lama last month held their fifth round of talks since resumption of ties in 2002. The spiritual leader last week said he hoped the dialogue would end Beijing's suspicion of him so that the two sides "can move on to settle the differences in our views and positions."

But the greater autonomy policy has not been an issue at the low-key elections here.

"I am going to vote though I don't know much about the candidates," admitted Sonam Tsering, a staff member at the Tibetan Children's Village school. "This voting is symbolic," he said.

In the assembly, 43 of the 46 deputies are directly elected by the people, including 10 from the five different sects of Tibetan Buddhism. Two deputies represent Europe and one North America. The Dalai Lama nominates three members.

Deputies are elected representing the three provinces of Tibet, namely U-Tsang, Amdo and Kham.

"Ours is not a party system. So there is no manifesto," remarked Pema Jungney, chairman of the assembly. "Our main goal is to work toward the freedom of the Tibetan people and welfare of Tibetans in exile," he said.

Two seats are reserved for women. "For now the reservation for women in the parliament is good, " said Dawa Tsomo, a woman running for a second term. "But the real encouragement and empowerment of women should be done at the grass-root level."

Tibetans living in India, Bhutan, Nepal, Europe and North America will cast their ballots at 53 polling stations set up by the election commission.

"The biggest problem we faced was reaching Tibetan refugees living in remote areas of Nepal because of the political problem there . . . frequent curfews delayed our process there," said secretary Dhargyal.

"To be able to conduct polls in exile is an achievement in itself," he added.