By Tenpa Dhargyal Gashi
The historic voting process has finally come to an end on both sides of the globe, if the globe can be divided into two that is. The turnout is guaranteed to be at least 70% of the registered voters which is a tremendous boost for our nascent (tell me when you get tired of this word) democracy and probably the first time it had reached that level in our history. Most of the credit for this vibrant election period can be attributed to the three candidates for their tireless work as they campaigned all over the world and especially to Dr.Lobsang Sangay and Kungo Tenzin Tethong. In particular, Dr.Lobsang Sangay has managed to unleash an unprecedented onslaught of campaigning before the Katri election had even begun, as he went around different settlements all over India and the west on his educational tour, stressing the importance and value of public participation. That early start left the other candidate scrambling to catch up with him as he led the preliminaries with 10,000 votes. It was actually a very smart move on his part because otherwise he would have been at a huge disadvantage being a complete unknown entity at that point and this strategy allowed him to put his face in front of the actual voters and connect with them on a human level. Even so, I am pretty sure the initial result probably shocked him too as much as it did everybody else.
After that, the proverbial gloves were off, and the campaign took on a life of its own and we saw the first ever western style campaign pit stops all across Tibetan settlements – actually twice for Dr.Lobsang Sangay as he later went on a ‘thank you tour’ for his preliminary win. No, I don’t know what that means either. Well attended debates were held in every major Tibetan settlement around the world in various formats and If I am not wrong, there were as many as 15 such debates or appearances organized which is extraordinary and surpasses even western countries in terms of pure volume. There were also special election editions from different news outlets and every endeavor was made to keep the public in the loop with continual updates on the candidates. There was much professionalism displayed from the organizers and every effort was made to be transparent on all fronts, even though sometimes the technology betrayed us.
We also witnessed fund raising events organized by supporters, websites launched, mass production of pamphlets, newsletters, DVDS, TV spots on Tibetan channels, various support groups formed, and even musical numbers if you can believe it! There also was a slew of articles written on the election on Tibetan Political Review (probably the only website who did not give in to partisan accusation) and various other sites from each candidate’s supporters and also a serious attempt by an individual to even do an opinion poll on the candidates which I thought was pretty well done although I must say the result would have been just confined to those with access to computer and internet. It was truly on an unprecedented level and a huge success. As I jokingly tell my friends, half the people got inspired by Dr.Lobsang Sangay and the other half got terrified that he might actually win this election. Why am I the only one who thinks it is funny?
Whatever it might be, the candidates managed to make this Katri election exciting, memorable, and probably the only election so far with such extensive campaigning (for the two main candidates at least), with their gracious appearances on Tibetan News shows, their willingness to undergo the hardships during their campaign all over the world often in less than amicable travel conditions, and by inspiring supporters to form volunteer groups who promoted their candidacy with zeal and passion and sometimes heated debates on Facebook and other social websites.
Personally, I was proud to represent Tenzing Namgyal Tethong and to be involved with his campaign team. Our team ran a very professional and a very clean campaign from the very beginning and have complied with everything the public needed to know whether it be about the deficit issue or finance transparency. I was particularly inspired by the grassroots participation from college students and other youths who went around campaigning on behalf of Tethong la in many settlements with well-organized and well prepared presentations. Regardless of whether Tethong la wins or not, I am sure he was tremendously impressed and moved by such show of faith and dedication in his candidacy, especially when it is from people who never even heard of him before this Katri Election and who were simply inspired by his lifetime of dedicated service to his country and
people. I am sure it must be the same for the other two candidates.
Now, that the campaign has officially concluded, I thought I will share few thoughts on this election. Although, this election has been a huge success and has certainly created a new benchmark in almost every facet of public participation and it spells great hope for future engagement between the Government and the people, there are some areas that could use a little upgrading and tuning up for the future, as with any endeavors in life.
One of the chief overhaul or upgrading needs to happen with the Election Commission itself. Although, they have performed as expected in this election, they did show some weaknesses that we could possibly fix so that next time we are better prepared. One of the factors relates to its flexibility with emergency contingency planning which revealed serious flaws, particularly with Nepal and possibly even Bhutan interfering in the election process. I understand the position of the current Commissioner but I wished he had been a little more creative toward the end. There must be some sort of contingency plan in place which can be implemented under the sole authority of the Election Commissioner if we are to fully represent all our citizens in the future. Right now, I am made to understand that any changes in the election rules have to be approved by the Chitue and therefore there is no recourse if something like this happens in the future. Introducing voting by mail, voting Online, going door to door, or even stretching the Election Day into a week for the area affected could all be options that must be available for the Election Commissioner, so we won’t have a repeat of Nepal vote nullification.
The second thing I feel we need to look at is the full disclosure of the result, broken by area, precincts, age, gender, etc so that we can get a well informed outlook on the whole result. I have written on this disclosure issue before after the Preliminary results were announced as I wanted to know where my candidate needed to make more of an effort to garner votes. Aside from being fodder for the statisticians, I feel it will prove very educational for all concerned and allow us to get insights into the thought processes of the electorates and the changing dynamics of the population. More importantly, It will leave less room for uninformed rumors based on hearsay and that alone will be move in the right direction, especially when it comes to Chokha vote propensity. The more open we are as a society, the less room we leave for erroneous speculations based on faulty information. Numbers don’t lie.
The third thing is the timeline for the vote counting and vote declaration. If preliminary vote results are anything to go by, which was a month’s gap, then it leaves a huge vacuum between the Election Day to the day the results are disclosed to the public. I am not exactly asking for the results that very night but a timeframe that is not more than one week. I believe a tally is done at the polling station itself in most cases and then the ballots shipped to Dhasa, so it is not like it is something totally unfeasible. Besides, there are constant leaks coming out from most of the polling stations, leading to too many speculations already. If VOA or RFA could report the initial result as they are come in from different polling stations and analysts give their thoughts on how it will pan out and what different scenarios could occur and what needs to happen for one candidate to triumph over the over etc, it could make for a very engaging experience for all concerned. I could envision a whole show based simply on predictions and bar charts and discussion of raw numbers. I know touch screen maps and expandable screens are out of our reach at the moment but I think you can pretty much guess where I am going with this. I don’t know if this is practiced yet and I am leaning towards NO, we need representatives of the candidates themselves to witness the vote counting and make sure there are no untoward activities being perpetuated at particular localities. I personally don’t know who is handling the vote count right now and what sort of affiliations they might harbor. That way it will leave less room for controversy later on.
The fourth is the number of candidates allowed in the final election. This is nothing against any one candidate and also it can’t said to be without precedent either as we have observed it in the US elections too. Oh, before I forget, if you have been wondering, the role of Ross Perot in this election has been played by Kungo Tashi Wangdi la as I sort of predicted in an earlier piece. Well, not exactly by name but the gist was the same as the margin of votes between the top two candidates and rest was enormous as to be practically a non-starter for any serious chance for winning the election. Be that as it may, coming back to the topic at hand, I wasn’t aware of it initially but few people voiced their concern to me that if a candidate doesn’t win by majority votes, it will somehow weaken the post itself. I believe they were echoing H.H’s initial hope during the first Katri election that it would be highly desirable and beneficial if the elected person wins by huge margin. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying it is against the law or what have you because I know there are some people out there who are dying to take words out of context and run with it.
Just to be sure, let me dumb it for them. Let’s say Candidate A wins 40% of the votes, followed by 35% for candidate B and then 25% for candidate C, the new Katri will have won only 40% of the Tibetan voters whereas 60% voted for someone else. Although I am sympathetic to that view I also realize the process itself is more important than the candidates and who is to say whether one of the Candidates in this election might possibly win by more than 50% - in spite of delusional people making ridiculous predictions. Nonetheless, I believe it is something to think about in the future.
The last important issue that must be looked at seriously is financial transparency in the future elections as that wasn’t properly implemented in this one as Dr.Lobsang Sangay pretty much ignored all calls for financial transparency while the other two complied with it. There is a reason why it is considered important in other countries in their elections as no one wants undue influence from shady organizations or special interest groups intruding upon this most precious proceeding of a democratic system. I am not implying anything by it but I was disappointed that Dr.Lobsang Sangay totally blew it away as another unnecessary element of this election, especially since he has some knowledge of the law. This is not about a single person but about the successful continuation of a process in place that was bestowed upon us by none other than Kundun. Frankly, I was not satisfied with his explanation on that front. Hopefully, a clear directive would be drawn up by the Election Commission so future candidates would abide by it.
Oh, get an independent website of your own next time.
The Role of Media and Journalists:
I must say and when I say ‘I’, I mean the general consensus of the people around me and although I don’t know how profound an impact it will have on my claim, the consensus is that the Media and especially the Tibetan journalists did not live up to the expectation. Of course, there were some exceptions and there were some hard questions posed to the candidates from some Journalists but as a whole, the questions seemed like they were picked out of a board exam preparatory Made Easy books with readymade answers attached to it. Frankly it left much to be desired. Regardless of their personal biases or general inclinations or what not, it is still every journalist’s duty to grill each and every candidate and make sure every facet of the candidate is made known to public and if there are inconsistencies, it must be sought out and put to rest, instead of leaving it in the hands of individuals to do the job of a journalist. The general feeling I got was most of them were afraid of stepping on candidate’s toe and be labeled as a closet supporter of the other candidate.
Lord knows character assassination had been constant in this election and anybody who is even perceived to be overly hard on a particular candidate is branded as ‘bought’ or ‘paid for’ by some people. Sometimes, it is enough to just share the last name to mislabel a whole organization. To that end, I must admit I might have unwittingly put Namgyal Shastri on the spot with an article for which he was promptly knocked off the perch and insidious rumors were spread on the internet about his personal relationships with Tethong. So, there is that. While I could sit here and feel outraged at such behaviors I must admit these things are nothing new - although the level was ridiculously high. Maybe, it reflects the brand new smell of democracy in our society that we cannot distinguish the role of a journalist as a neutral third party.
Hopefully, that will change in the future because when journalists feel threatened or ostracized for doing what they are supposed to be doing, it bodes ill for democracy itself. On this front, I must once again congratulate Namgyal Shastri and the Moderator from Dhasa for RFA for their stellar performances. And I know I am being unfairly hard on them being new and all at this level of campaigning, still I would be remiss if I don’t point out the duty of a journalist is to pursue the truth at all cost. I am not saying it is not hard to be out in the open like this, especially in a small society like ours where personal interactions are at very close quarters and personal relationships could very well be frayed due to some people’s childish behavior. I guess what I am trying to say is that the price of investigative journalism is quite steep and the title of a journalist might have to be earned with a sullied image and dirty look from people. So, you want to be a journalist?
I felt there was a lot more debate than was necessary if you can even call it a debate to begin with. A ‘Question & Answer’ session might be the correct terminology for it as the aptly named one held by Tibetan Women’s association in Dhasa. A debate is a chance for Candidates not only to present their platform but more importantly to point out the inconsistencies of their opponent’s position in public and to answer questions regarding any doubts of their own. It is the time to present the difference between oneself and the opponent’s position and to extol the virtue of your own platform. I understand it might be uncomfortable for Tibetan politicians to engage in this sort of debate due to the cultural norms and they would rather take the high road and hope the people understand the subtleties of their policies on their own. On a side note, I did hear one of the Moderator gently encourage the candidates to be more engaged (refute the position of the others) with each other and to make it more lively in one such debate but still no cigar. So, it wasn’t like attempts were not made and time slots provided to offer rebuttal. Maybe, the moderator needs to get more creative in the future and ask a candidate’s opinion on his opponent’s position on certain policies and spice it up a little.
In any case, 15 such appearances is not only way too much and generates the same old stale questions which have been answered for the umpteenth time but also quite taxing for candidates who didn’t get a chance to visit different settlements and they have to fit all of these debates and other personal appearances on VOA or RFA with their travel arrangements. Of course, it wouldn’t matter if the candidate didn’t really care one way or the other and was only there for the ride. I would suggest reducing the “Q &A” sessions to half that amount and to announce it beforehand so that the candidates are fully aware of how to proceed with their campaign. I am thinking about 2 in North America and about 3 in India which are of course telecast live via internet (hopefully much better this time). If the Election Commissioner can allocate the dates and the locality of the said debates beforehand after consultation and approval of the said Candidates, it will reduce the really annoying that-group-did-it-so-we-have-to-organize-one-too sort of mentality I observed and the ensuing debate about why one candidate didn’t attend that particular debate. Let all the Tibetan communities sent in their applications and pick the ones that will result in huge turnout.
There is also something to be said about the duration of the debate itself. Although, the ones on VOA was well sectioned and time well managed, there were some that was like watching Tibetan Opera minus the music and was god awfully long. It didn’t help that there were technical difficulties and it was held at the most inconvenient time.
There is a whole misconception regarding Negative campaigning and critical questioning. People either can’t distinguish between the two or they are deliberately blurring the distinction to fool the public but every time hard questions are asked of Candidates, accusations of Negative campaigning abound to the total vexation of intelligent observers. It was becoming so bad that even debate organizers were afraid to allow ‘personal’ questions to be asked of Candidates ending up making the whole proceeding a snooze fest. This sort of crying wolf tactic is in of itself negative campaigning but more importantly it is tantamount to betrayal of the spirit of democracy itself, especially when journalists and private individuals are deliberately targeted to silence them. When something like this happens, it is the duty of every journalists and organizations to come forward and decry such behavior. As much as I would like to entertain the idea that future campaigns will be free of such antics, I am pretty sure people will push the envelope on that front again.
So, let me give you some examples of what might be considered negative campaigning and what might not fall under that definition. Questioning the ethnicity of a Candidate’s wife(both candidates), his family members, his ancestry (Kudrak), or labeling neutral organization like SFT and TYC, or even Moderators and Organizers is definitely Negative since they are not running for the Katri post. The candidate himself is usually considered fair game even though there is a limit to everything and in a civilized world it would be strictly limited to his actual personal history, his work experiences, his previous voting records and his promises and statements. If possible, let us try to keep the dirty laundry amongst ourselves instead of blatantly firing off an email full of lies to 400 plus individual Tibet supporters and Support groups. I am sure they have better things to do than to listen to some spineless individual bent on promoting his own candidate at the cost of our society.
Lastly, I want to go back to a really annoying theme that has been perpetuated in this election which made me feel like we were reliving Cultural Revolution in exile without the Dunce hat and the elaborate lettering and that is the illusion of Kudraks being in power in exile. It was especially distasteful when it was propagated by supposedly western educated individuals and makes one wonder what kind of education they are actually getting. Some of their talking points were eerily familiar with our 50 cents counterparts I felt really disgusted at the whole thing. First of all, it has been a non issue for the longest time with the introduction of democratic principles and secondly nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, the initial cabinets were filled with them because we didn’t really have a choice back then but for the last 30 years or so, only 7 of the 54 Kalons have been from Kudrak background (86% were non-Kudraks) and only 1 of the past 8 kalon Tripas had Kudrak background. The myth of the common man arising out of the ashes of past is just that: a myth.
Corollary to that let me bust another myth that is spread dutifully by some insidious people like a sexual disease: Utsang voters are somewhat biased toward Khampas. Either they are just plain stupid or they have poison running in their veins because that is a bold face lie and quite dangerous for a very fragile society like ours and very divisive. All you have to do is take a look at the Kalon Tripas and Kalons in the last thirty years or so and you will get a better picture. Despite Utsangs being the strong majority in exile, the majority of the Kalons have been from the Kham region from the time Parliament started electing Kalons (1990 Onwards = 15 Kham, 14 Utsang, 12 Amdo) and the number didn’t diverge too much even if you went back 30 years or so (20 Kham, 25 Utsang, 13 Amdo). The overwhelmingly majority of Kalon Tripa terms from the fifth Kashag onwards have been held by Khampas (6 kham, 2 Utsang, 1 Amdo) for the same period. That is another reason why I think voting pattern in exile should be disclosed to the public to show the lack of substance behind that assertion. You don’t have to look no further than the previous two terms of Samdhong Rinpoche. I bring this up because we really need to get away from this mentality if we are truly serious about Unity. If anybody brings it up next time, please smack that mouth with a chappal because they would be asking for it. Hard.
All in all, this has been a tremendous success for our democratic system in terms of public participation and it became especially significant when Kundun recently devolved his political powers and sought amendments in the constitution to make it official. Now, let us find out how we performed in our first outing post Kundun’s political leadership with a New Katri and Chitue. At the end of the day, Tibetan people won by actively participating in their own future. Whoever becomes our Prime Minister will need our support and our collective recognition as it should be but at the same time we have to make sure we hold them responsible for decisions made and policies implemented and don’t allow them to shift the blame upwards like usual. We owe it to Kundun to be more active in our own Government. Let us not let him down. Bodh Gyalo!