Those of us who grew up in the world’s largest democracy – Jai Hind! – know a thing or two about electoral hijinks: poll rigging, vote buying, proxy voting, and such exotic regional variations as “ballot stuffing” and “booth capturing”. But however desperately Indian netas, their chamchas, chelas and goondas try – in their remorseless quest for power – to undermine the democratic process, the Election Commission (EC) of India is always there to to save the day.
The Indian EC is universally regarded as the effective and incorruptible guardian of free and fair elections throughout India. Even the occasional criticism it receives are minor – not responding to complaints quickly enough, and so on. Last year I came across an article by Tahir Mehdi in DAWN, Pakistan’s oldest and most widely-read English language newspaper, offering a detailed analysis and fulsome praise of India’s EC. This is a must read piece for Tibetans as it presents an interesting contrast to the failings of the Tibetan Election Commission in Dharamshala.
Our Tibetan EC has a checkered past, largely as it is not a true autonomous constitutional authority, like its Indian equivalent, but just a small department of the CTA, whose staff members (all good people, no doubt) do what they are told by their superiors. I remember when I was editor of Mangtso (in ’93 or thereabouts?) that an ill-advised EC decision caused violent inter-cholka fighting and the thrashing of a guest-house below the Gangkyi taxi stand – even the rough-handling of Mangtso photographer, Lobsang Wangyal. After we printed the story our office was invaded by a McLeod Ganj mob. In 1981, the Tibetan parliament and the EC equivalent then, suspended chitue elections altogether and had the Dalai Lama select Deputies to the Assembly through a kind of divinatory process called yeshe emche. It was, of course, a cringe-making disaster. I’ve written about these things before and it depresses me just to just recall them.
But the EC appears to have outdone itself in incompetence (or deviousness?) in the latest Tibetan Sikyong elections. These are two-stage elections, and the first polling was held on Sunday 18th October of this year. Rough preliminary results showed Lobsang Sangay with a tremendous lead, Penpa Tsering coming in second and Lukar Jam and Tashi Wangdi vying for third place.
On Tuesday, the 20th of October, two days after the polls had closed the EC announced on Tibet.net (the official CTA website) that a new rule had been enacted whereby the second and final stage ballot would be limited to just two candidates, unless the third candidate came within 20% of the vote total of the second candidate. This announcement was also carried on VOT and also on Phayul.com and other Tibetan media sources. The date of the announcement in all the reports was Tuesday 20, October.
An American lawyer friend noted “…this decision by the Tibetan EC — made two days after the vote — would make the election process so arbitrary as to be illegitimate.” Another observer, a first-time voter and political activist from Switzerland, Tashi Shitsetsang noted in an incisive article that “… it is not difficult to believe that the purpose of the 20% rule is to exclude Sikyong candidate Lukar Jam from the race.” She also describes her disillusionment with the whole process. “I felt very excited to make use of my rights as a Tibetan Green Book holder for the first time. I was ready to finally embrace our democracy, but what awaited me was truly shocking.” Both observers also made this comparison to the Sikyong elections of 2011 where fourth place candidate Tashi Wangdi was allowed on the final ballot with only 5% (2,101) of the votes of the second candidate Tenzin Tethong’s 12,319 votes in the primary election.
Phayul.com reported in 2011 that “… the Election Commission had shortlisted a total of top six candidates for the final round of its election.” … “Three candidates later withdrew their candidacy.” The withdrawals were entirely voluntary. No candidates were excluded by the EC from the final round. So when was this 20% cut-off rule created and established?
The latest, I repeat LATEST, changes to the bylaws regarding election rules, published by the Tibetan parliament and dated 25 September 2015, makes no reference to a 20% rule. Check out the full document on this link. It takes a while for the pdf file to download.
Arbitrary and undemocratic application of election regulations, are, of course, not unusual in Tibetan elections. One occurrence should be set out in some detail, especially as it concern Lukar Jam’s previous attempt at participating in CTA elections. In November 2013, when Kirti Dolkar Lhamo, the incumbent MP from Domey (Amdo) constituency resigned, her seat, according to a new amendment, was to automatically pass on to the candidate who was next in the vote count, in this case Lukar Jam. The Election Commission however argued that since this amendment had been decided after the 2011 elections it could only come into force after the next (2015?) elections. This might sound absolutely absurd and arbitrary, but the EC didn’t stop there. It switched this same absurd rule a couple of years later when it suited Dharamshala’s convenience. When Chungdak Koren, the European MP, resigned in March 2014 for health reasons, her seat was automatically passed on to Wangpo Tethong who had secured the third highest votes in Europe. No elections had taken place in the interim.
Getting back to the present, and the new EC 20% rule, the discrepancy and perhaps even the underhandedness of this decision appeared to have been noticed by a three-member independent team monitoring the preliminary elections. The monitors from Asia Democracy Network , the Asian Network for Free Elections and Forum-Asia, in association with the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy presented their observation and findings at a press conference at Dharamshala. The delegation praised the EC’s overall efforts, given the problems of “the (Tibetan) stateless diaspora spread across the globe”.
But they took issue with the EC’s 20% decision and announcement of the new process of Sikyong candidates advancing to the final elections. “We are less concerned about which Sikyong candidates advance to the next round. But having the criteria clear before the elections, when the results are not known yet, is crucial, otherwise it opens the EC to criticisms.”. In a real democracy it opens the EC to a lot more. If the election commissioner in a real democracy and real elections had rewritten the rules after the polls had closed, he or she would, at a minimum, be liable to criminal prosecution.
What must be puzzling to many non-Tibetan observers of the Tibetan election is that Lukar Jam had not even come close to beating the front runner who was leading him by over ten times his (Lukar’s) votes. Even the second place Penpa Tsering (10,137) had over five times Lukar’s vote. So why bother trying to run him out of the final stage of the election? There’s not an snowball’s chance in hell that he would make up the votes in the final elections. So what’s going on?
Anyone who’s been paying even cursory attention to the Sikyong elections will have noticed the virulence with which the establishment has sought to discredit Lukar Jam Atsok. It started with the speaker of the Parliament, Penpa Tsering, going around to the major monasteries in the South where the largest bloc vote communities are, and making the announcement that he would not debate anyone who criticized the Dalai Lama. As the Tibetan Political Review noted it “… appeared to be a thinly-veiled reference to pro-independence candidate Lukar Jam”. Other monasteries and establishments jumped on the loyalty bandwagon, Gyutoe monastery even issuing a written statement declaring it would not allow any critic of the Dalai Lama to speak at their monastery. When Lukar Jam went to South India he was banned from speaking at the TCV hostel at Bangalore and also at the Dalai Lama College, both controlled by the Dalai Lama’s sister, Jetsun Pema. Some students met privately with Lukar Jam. Although the major monasteries were off-limits to him he managed to speak to the monks of a non-establishment (non-Gelukpa) monastery in the South.
Inside Tibet 149 people have immolated themselves for Tibetan freedom. In China we have have had a series of stock market crashes and clear indications of a possible economic catastrophe overwhelming that country. In the Pacific the possibility of a major conflict between China and the US and its regional allies, is growing. None of these issues have in, any way, been discussed or even touched upon by establishment candidates in the Sikyong elections. Even the public discussions and comments have focused almost entirely on Lukar Jam not being respectful to the Dalai Lama, and on Lukar’s criticism of the Dalai Lama for giving up Tibetan independence. For the record it should be made clear that Lukar Jam did not say that the Dalai Lama is a “Traitor” (gyaltsongpa) as his critics are all insisting, and using to instigate the Tibetan public to oppose and possibly even attack him.
Just last month, on the day of the elections a video was posted on YouTube of Jetsun Pema, the Dalai Lama’s sister, and former director of the Tibetan Children’s village, denouncing, in the strongest of terms, all those Tibetans not showing gratitude to the Dalai Lama and daring to criticize him.
Another Youtube video was posted on November 3rd of His Holiness at a special religious ceremony at the main Temple in Dharamshala. He gave a brief political address where he said he was very happy with those who had declared their undying faith in the Middle Way Approach policy. He also said he was very happy with those Tibetan committed to implementing this policy through “direct involvement” (shar-kyoe), and he thanked all of them. He also said that his feelings were hurt (lo-pham) by those who instead of saying that he had done a good job, said that his policies had failed.
From what I have heard from Dharamshala, Middle Way devotees are interpreting His Holiness’ words as encouraging some kind of “direct action” against Tibetans who disagree with the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way policy and call for Tibetan Independence. Lukar Jam Atsok and his supporters in McLeod Ganj are facing increasingly hostile opposition, possibly even a potential mob attack by yahoos of the religious-right, as has happened with depressing regularity too many times before.
I asked earlier “What’s going on? Why all this hysterical opposition to a candidate who hasn’t got “… a snowball’s chance in hell to win the elections?” I am convinced the reason is that even in a distant third place, Lukar Jam would, by the rules of the 2011 election, have to be recognized as a formal candidate for the final round of election. And the establishment does not want that. In the coming national debates, lectures, TV and radio discussions the establishment does not want a sincere, knowledgeable and articulate former political prisoner speaking convincingly about why Tibet must be independent and why the Middle Way Policy has failed. It would be too much like the child in the story calling out “… the Emperor has no clothes”.
So this 20% rule swindle and the endless vicious attacks on Lukar Jam are not mere incidents of election fraud of the kind that often happens, even in democratic countries. Dharamshala is now demanding that all opposition to its policies absolutely end, and that all Tibetans demonstrate eternal and undying faith in the Middle Way policy, or otherwise be prepared to face demonization, ostracizm and possibly even mob violence.
What can right thinking Tibetans, friends and supporters do to halt, or at least slow down, Dharamshala’s veering towards the ideological mind-space of the PRC (and perhaps even the PDRK), albeit without the missiles, military parades and goose-stepping, of course. I will try and discuss possible courses of action in a coming post. In the meantime I think Rangzen activists should in no way feel discouraged or unerved by recent turn of events.
I am taking heart from the solicitude and action of the 27 long-time Tibet Supporters who sent an open letter to the CTA detailing their concerns about the “undemocratic practices” of the present EC and warning that continuing support of Tibet supporters and Support Groups “… should not be wholly taken for granted”. Earlier, inji supporters tended to be as gullible as your mani-spinning amala, when it came to Tibetan politics. There is real hope that very soon such sincere Tibet supporters and genuine friends of the Dalai Lama as Professor Robert Thurman and Nancy Pelosi can be approached to join the “27”, and help strengthen Tibetan democracy.
I am also enormously encouraged by the fact that a very young Tibetan female activist, Tashi Shitsetsang, operating within the stifling confines of probably the most hide-bound and orthodox of exile communities, should openly publish (with full name and photograph) an incisive, articulate and courageous challenge to the wrongdoings of the EC. How gutsy can you get?