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Missing the Big Picture?
A Comment on Lobsang Sangay's "Kalon Tripa Election Reform"

Wednesday, Jul 7, 2010
No Comment

As the 2011 Kalon Tripa election nears, Tibetans need to seriously evaluate the candidates so that their decision is well-informed. As the Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political Review, we have not committed to supporting any candidate. In order to further the spirit of democratic debate, we plan to comment on and critique the policy platforms of the individuals nominated as Kalon Tripa candidates, toughly but fairly. We do this not as any sort of “experts” but simply as Tibetans. In this article, we turn to Dr. Lobsang Sangay.

It was with interest that we read Lobsang-la’s February 23, 2010 article, “Kalon Tripa Election Reform.” The essence of Lobsang-la’s article is that the Tibetan voting process should be made easier. As we discuss below, some of his suggestions are good, but some seem politically naïve. His focus on process also ignores the big picture of substance, which suggests that Lobsang-la has not yet displayed the political maturity and vision necessary to be Kalon Tripa.

I. Suggestions on Process: the Good and the Bad

The problem that Lobsang-la’s article chooses to tackle is the historically low voter turnout among the Tibetan electorate. We critique his article based on how well it addresses this problem.

Most Tibetans will agree that the goal of a democracy should be to maximize voter participation, with the caveat being the need to prevent voter fraud and preserve the legitimacy of election results. Within this framework, Lobsang-la raises both good and bad ideas.

A. Registration Processes: A 2 Out of 3

With respect to its first point – registration processes – the article suggests eliminating registration requirements. This presents a problem because the risk of voter fraud increases dramatically without voter rolls. Lobsang-la admits that this proposal is “somewhat radical,” and for good reason. Without a voter registration list, there is greater risk of irregular procedures such as double-voting or voting under false identities. (This is not the kind of increased voter participation anyone should want!)

Lobsang-la makes a better suggestion on early and same-day voter registration. There is no good reason why, in the modern world, voter registration needs to close two months before an election. Once a voter has proven their identity and eligibility, they should be permitted to vote the same day. On this point, we agree with Lobsang-la.

We also think Lobsang-la is has an interesting idea when he advocates significantly lowering the fee for the Rangzen Lakhdeb/Gyalthon Mangul for people with financial need. Ideally, the right to vote should not be dependent on any sort of a “poll tax.” Given that Tibet’s exiled government does not have the same power to tax income as a typical government, it may not be feasible to entirely eliminate these fees. Lobsang-la strikes the proper balance here.

B. Voting Processes: A 1 Out of 3

With respect to the article’s second point – voting processes – Lobsang-la’s suggestions are mail-in ballots, e-ballots, and proxy ballots. Here, only one out of three ideas are well-founded.

Mail-in ballots are a good idea, and are used throughout the democratic world. Provided there are controls in place over the distribution of ballots and verification of eligibility of the returned ones, mail-in ballots can serve to dramatically increase voter participation.

E-ballots, however, present a serious problem in the form of cyber-security. As any Tibetan who is involved in the struggle knows well, there is a swarm of specially-designed computer viruses emanating out of Chinese cyber-war laboratories directed against the Tibet movement. It would take just one virus, just one slip-up on the Election Commission computers, just one Chinese hacker to seriously compromise our election results. We cannot afford to ignore this serious threat. Is this major risk worth the marginal gain in voter participation? We do not believe so. The e-ballot proposal seems ill-conceived in light of China’s demonstrated ability to hack the Tibetan government-in-exile’s computers.

Proxy voting presents another problem, this time to the principles of the secret ballot and “one-person, one-vote.” These principles are imperiled when a voter delegates his or her vote to another person. There is no way of knowing whether a delegation is voluntary, nor can one ensure that the delegate will vote according the voter’s wish.

For example, one need only consider an abused spouse, dependent parent, or adult child being intimidated into allowing an abusive head of household to cast a proxy ballot on their behalf. The Kalon Tripa should be especially concerned with helping the most vulnerable members of the society. Unfortunately, Lobsang-la’s proposal would do the opposite. Lobsang-la surely does not intend this, which means instead that his proposal was not thought out from a practical standpoint.

C. The Theory: Unexplained and Divorced From Reality

Lobsang-la frames the above proposals through the theory of what he refers to as “law and behavioral economics.” Actually, Professor Cass Sunstein, who developed this theory, calls it “behavioral law and economics,” being an offshoot of a school known as “law and economics.” It seeks to use economics and psychology to determine how laws can be structured to achieve particular goals by essentially recognizing people’s predictable irrationality. This theory can be applied to the goal of increasing voter turnout by changing the rules to make voting easier.

We would have preferred that Lobsang-la explain how this theory shaped his proposals rather than simply cite it without explanation. It is possible that the linkage is self-evident in Lobsang-la’s mind. However, a good leader brings people along by persuasion, so he or she needs the ability to explain their ideas to the electorate.

We are also concerned that Lobsang-la might not be properly applying his chosen theory to the real world. We believe it is important to temper academic theory with an understanding of how particular proposals might work in reality (like e-ballots being hacked). It is important not to be so enamored with an academic theory that one loses perspective. Our next Kalon Tripa must not be a political novice who is unable to mix theory with reality.

II. Focusing on Process Misses the Big Picture of Substance

Taking a step back, Lobsang-la’s article tries to solve the problem of low Tibetan voter participation. In this respect, unfortunately, it falls short. It prescribes small-scale procedural tweaks; what is really called for is addressing the big-picture issues facing the nation to give voters a meaningful choice in this election.

In diagnosing the problem of low voter turnout, Lobsang-la asserts that there has been a “collective failure on the part of the government and the people.” He says that the people have become “complacent.” Is this accurate? We do not believe so. Anyone who has spent time in a Tibetan tea-house, or debating Tibetan politics over beers, knows that Tibetan voters are not exactly “complacent.” There are many exciting ideas, many frustrations, and many strong patriotic feelings.

Why does this “sha-tsa” not translate into action through the ballot box? Low voter turnout should not be attributed to the failure or complacency of the Tibetan people. Rather, it should be attributed to the fact that, in a democracy, elections have to be about something in order to mean anything.

Voters are not foolish. When an election makes a difference in their lives, they will vote (e.g. the high turnout in the 2008 United States presidential election.) On the other hand, when elections will not make a significant difference, voter turnout will be predictably low. This is regardless of procedural changes like e-ballots. Voters have to care in order to vote, no matter the voting process.

Currently elections do not appear to make much of a difference in how Tibet’s government-in-exile functions, so Tibetan elections become about personality, not policy. Tibetans discuss which candidate is more “patriotic” or “honest,” but not what that candidate’s positions are on the major issues facing the nation, or whether that candidate has the professional qualifications to manage the government bureaucracy. Lobsang-la’s prescription of procedural reforms will not address this larger substantive problem.

What are the substantive issues facing the nation? There are many, and the Kalon Tripa candidates must not be silent on them.

First, of course, is the direction the government will take with respect to the Middle Way policy in the face of repeated rejections by the Chinese government. With Samdhong Rinpoche stating that further concessions on the Tibetan side are impossible, and with the Chinese side flatly rejecting any movement on their end, it appears that the Middle Way is at an impasse.

We would like to hear how candidate Lobsang-la would deal with this impasse. How would he advance Tibet’s political cause while keeping his eyes on the ultimate goal of a Tibet by and for Tibetans? On one hand, he serves on the negotiation task force. On the other hand, he recently wrote approvingly about Tibetans’ wish to “witness the unfurling of our national flag… on the rooftop of the Potala Palace.” This candidate should take the opportunity to explain his position to the voters.

There are other critical issues that are not yet being addressed in the Tibetan political discourse: How will the next Kalon Tripa counter Chinese subterfuge over the Dalai Lama’s next reincarnation? What will he or she do about improving the quality of Tibetan education and the economic situation in the settlements? How will the Kalon Tripa improve standards in the Tibetan civil service, which requires making entry, compensation, and advancement more competitive? What about ways the government’s financial base can be strengthened? How will the candidate view and shape Tibetan immigration to the West? Will the candidate promote any changes in how Tibetan democracy is structured, including how chitues are selected and what role political parties should have?

These are all big-picture issues that, so far, have not been addressed by the potential candidates for Kalon Tripa. Therefore, it is not fair for Lobsang-la to blame the voters for complacency, when the potential candidates have given the voters little to be excited about.

III. What Does His Article Tell Us About the Potential Candidate?

It is possible to draw some preliminary conclusions about this candidate from his article.

A. Questions of Political Maturity

First, this candidate has not yet shown an ability to diagnose political problems and develop effective cures. This candidate chose to address the issue of low voter turnout. However, he proposes procedural tweaks rather than necessary big picture solutions. Moreover, of those insufficient tweaks, some are politically naïve or poorly thought through. Tibetans do not need to be reminded that the nation is at a critical juncture, especially with His Holiness’ advancing age and stated desire to retire. There are many “big picture” issues that need serious engagement and plans. Tibetans need a Kalon Tripa with vision and political maturity.

B. Questions of Sincere Idealism

Second, Tibetans need a Kalon Tripa whose leadership will inspire the best in the Tibetan people. That leader must encourage idealism, fight cynicism, and deftly meld the highest principles with the realism necessary to get things done. In that respect, we are bothered by Lobsang-la’s argument that Tibetans should embrace democracy to “directly challenge Zhu Weiqun and the Chinese government.”

Tibetan democracy is about the political future of the Tibetan nation. Tibetans should not define themselves simply in opposition to their enemies, especially people as vile as Zhu. That only drags Tibetans down.

Tibet is presently in an existential struggle with the People’s Republic of China, but democratization must be undertaken for its own merits, not as a cheap public relations tool. One day when Tibetans regain their homeland, democracy must be about the highest ideals of freedom, not a tainted political weapon against some long-forgotten hatemonger. Lobsang-la appears to lose sight of that.

C. Questions of Nuanced Thinking and Ability to Unify

Third, we are troubled by Lobsang-la’s invocation of former President George Bush’s formulation of either being “with us or against us.” President Bush did immense damage to unity and goodwill among the American people, and people worldwide, by insinuating that anyone who disagreed with him was on the side of the “evildoers.” The last thing Tibetans need is a Kalon Tripa who adopts a simplistic, black-and-white worldview.

IV. Conclusion

In conclusion, Lobsang-la has wrongly suggested that democracy is a public relations tool, rather than a higher principle in its own right. He has unthinkingly or – even worse – purposefully invoked a cynical and simplistic worldview. And he has not shown an ability to diagnose the big-picture issues that the Tibetan nation must deal with. On technical issues that he focuses on, he has some good ideas. But other ideas display an undue emphasis on abstract theory and a lack of real-world political experience.

Lobsang-la tells us in his article’s autobiographical blurb that he “earned Ph.D. degree and became not only the first among six million Tibetans but also from Himalayan region including Bhutan, Nepal and Mongolia.” But serving in the highest elected office of the Tibetan nation requires more than academic qualities divorced from the big picture and on-the-ground realities. It also requires political adeptness, principled idealism, and political vision. The next Kalon Tripa will need all of these qualities to lead the Tibetan people.

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Article originally published in The Tibetan Political Review, on June 11, 2010.

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