Exiled Tibetans across the world are gearing up to choose their Sikyong (political leader) and Chithues (members of Parliament) in the 16th Tibetan parliamentary elections to be held on Sunday. The excitement is palpable in Mcleodganj, the town in Himachal Pradesh that is the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. There are political posters everywhere, as also seminars, discussions and public meetings.

What sets this election apart and has drawn the lines starkly is the candidature of Lukar Jam for Sikyong. A dissident who spent six years in a Chinese jail, Lukar is the only candidate who is demanding Rangzen – complete independence of Tibet. By doing so, he has openly contradicted the Middle Way approach proposed by the Dalai Lama in 2008,  which seeks autonomy within China. This strategy has now been accepted by most Tibetan leaders.

Lukar has admittedly unconventional views. With a mere high school certificate, he is in favour of a secular education policy that focuses more on “modernism” and “mainstreaming” rather than just traditional Tibetan subjects. An admitted atheist, he has clearly stated that he would separate religion and politics – a huge blow to the traditional Tibetan society that relies so heavily on the monastery. It is not difficult to understand why Lukar is widely considered as being anti-Dalai Lama.

Running against the polished, Harvard-educated Lobsang Sangay – the current Sikyong running for a second term  – it's widely accepted that Lukar stands little chance of winning the election. Yet, his candidature is important because it has helped bring to the surface aspirations and frustrations that had so far gone unrecognised.

Voting structure

The Sikyong and Chithues are all selected for a term of five years. In the Tibetan parliament, 10 MPs each are selected from Tibet's three provinces – U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo – by exiled Tibetans in India, Nepal and Bhutan. Community members in North America and Europe select two MPs each, while there is one representative from Australia. Fourth Buddhist sects get two representatives each, as also followers of the pre-Buddhist religion of Bon.

All candidates are standing for their posts as independents. But this isn't to say that the community does not have a political party. In 1994, the Dalai Lama encouraged the Tibetan National Congress youth movement to form the National Democratic Party of Tibet to help the community make the transition from functioning as a theocracy to operating as a fledgling democracy.

Confusingly, the National Democratic Party of Tibet is endorsing two candidates for the post of Sikyong  – Lobsang Sangay as well as former speaker of Parliament, Penpa Tsering. Both support the Middle Way.

So when Lukar Jam declared his backing for Rangzen, the more radical Tibetan National Congress decided to register itself officially as a political party and endorse him. Though the Youth Congress had helped create the National Democratic Party of Tibet two decades ago, it has develop differences with the party over its decision to support Middle Way strategy instead of demanding complete freedom.

However, when the Tibetan National Congress attempted to register with the Election Commission of the Central Tibetan Administration, as the government-in-exile is known, they were told the organisation did not have the authority to accord it recognition. “Unlike India, when the Election Commission reserves the right to recognise political parties, it is not so here,” said Chief Election Commissioner Sonam Choephel Shosur. Instead, the right to recognise a political party lies with the Tibetan cabinet.

The Tibetan National Congress has written to Lobsang’s cabinet about registering themselves as a political party but has not yet received a response.

Diverse appeal

Human rights activist Tenzin Nyinjey said that Lukar's appeal cuts across exiles from across Tibet's three regions. His most enthusiastic support comes from young exiles. In all his tours across India and abroad, his most loyal audience has been college students.

Filmmaker Tenzing  Sonam believes Lukar is “incredibly bold” to have openly supported Rangzen, even though he is being perceived as anti-Dalai Lama for it. "When it comes to His Holiness, most Tibetans cannot think freely," Sonam said. "They just want to rely on him to take all decisions." That's why he believes that it is extremely important that Lukar is running in this election.

"The youth may not possess the same religious fervour as the older generations, but His Holiness is still very very important, partly owing to His own personality," Sonam said. "So, Lukar having captured the youth’s admiration is surprisingly positive."

When it comes to the crunch, it seems certain that Lobsang will beat Lukar hands down. But Nyinjey feels democracy is not just about numbers. “Lukar has a far diverse support base," he said. "And that is also a lot what a leader is about.”