On Sunday, close to one lakh people in about 30 countries participated in the elections to choose the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile and other members of the 16th Tibetan Parliament .

The government that will be chosen by these polls will govern a vast community of Tibetans spread across several countries, including India, Nepal, Bhutan, US and Canada from its headquarters in McLeodganj, 10 km above Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh.

In the fray for the top position is the current Sikyong – or head of state – Lobsang Sangay, a Harvard-educated legal scholar, and Penpa Tsering, Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament.

One of the biggest voting booths for Sunday’s election was inside a temple in McLeodganj. It saw a heavy turnout of voters from early in the morning, all holding their green identity cards.

Sunday’s election follows a preliminary round that was held in October. The results will be declared on April 24.

The elections are a result of the decision of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetans, in 2011 to relinquish his political authority over the community in order to vest it in a democratic system. The last election was held later that year, when over 50% of the registered voters elected Sangay as Sikyong.

The Tibetan parliament has about 45 seats. Thirty seats come from the three regions of Tibet – Tsang, Kham and Amdo that have 10 seats each, while 10 seats come from the five Tibetan Buddhist schools that have been allocated two seats each. Tibetans in Europe and North America have two seats each, while Tibetans in Australia and the rest of Asia together have one seat.

Tenzin Thutop, a 30-year-old monk, had arrived at the polling booth two hours early in anticipation of heavy crowds. He beamed at the cameras of the Tibetan press gathered there to record every moment of the electoral process.

Voting involved obtaining a ballot paper, getting a finger inked, entering a semi-private area to mark one’s choice and finally dropping the ballot inside on a box kept on a nearby table.

“This is our exercise in democracy that Dalai Lama has given birth to,” said Thutop. “… It goes on to prove the legitimacy of Tibet as a country which can never cease to exist.”

Asked how voting for a shadow government without a territory would help, Thutop said there was a lot that the Tibetan government managed to do even while being based out of India, where the Dalai Lama has lived since 1959. “We recently received a new health insurance scheme based on a cooperative model where we all pool in money to support a member of the group in case of emergencies,” he said. “The government also provides financial support to other things like schools and monasteries.”

Right outside the temple, a poster displayed smiling Tibetans posing with their health insurance cards – a scheme that’s the talk of the town among the community.

A local shopkeeper who was waiting for his turn to vote told Scroll.in that the Dalai Lama was wise in making way for a democratic process that would continue long after he was gone. There have been concerns about the 80-year-old spiritual leader's health. In January, he travelled to the United States for prostate treatment.

To be eligible to participate in the elections, voters must be above 25 years of age and possess a Green Book, a document issued by the Tibetan government-in-exile, which contains proof of identity as well as tax details. The government-in-exile levies nominal taxes from its people to maintain their records. A sparsely-staffed election commission takes care of the voting process.

Observers from several countries were present to make sure that the elections were held in a fair manner. Lisa Singh, a senator from Australia, was one of those deployed by the Tibet Election Observation Mission.

“I am here to see that the voting goes on peacefully and purposefully,” Singh said. “This is among the largest exercises in the world to elect a government for a country that doesn’t legally exist as an independent nation anymore. Over the years, subsequent power decentralisation has brought this day and going forward, democratic power will only be strengthened.”

Nicholas Vreeland, an American citizen and a senior monk who has spent decades in India, pointed out that the Indian Tibetan community remained a refugee group left to fend for itself in the absence of recognition by the Indian government.

“Many promises have been made and broken by the government of India,” said Vreeland. “Those who are voting in these queues don’t have Indian citizenship or any proof of identity that can help them get jobs or even access to social welfare schemes. This country doesn’t recognise Tibet as a free country and that means that these refugees don’t have a belongingness to any free nation.”

All photographs by Mayank Jain.