Dharamsala / AFP
Tens of thousands of exiled Tibetans voted on Sunday for a new leader tasked with sustaining their struggle for greater autonomy in their Chinese-ruled homeland as the Dalai Lama retreats from the political frontline.
While Tibetans from across the world were set to vote, those in the picturesque Indian hill town of Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama lives started lining up at booths at 9:00 am (0330 GMT) to elect the next leader of the government-in-exile.
One by one, hundreds including monks and nuns scribbled the names of their favourite candidates on pieces of paper and slipped them into green ballot boxes before polls close at 5:00 pm.
The post of prime minister in exile was a low-profile role before the 80-year-old Tibetan spiritual leader devolved power in an attempt to lessen his own totemic status and foster a democratic setup to keep Tibetâ€™s freedom movement alive after his death.
â€œThough His Holiness the Dalai Lama remains our leader of the nation in terms of guiding us in solving the Tibet issue, it is important that we vote and elect our political leader,â€ a 45-year-old monk, Jamyang, said after casting his vote.
The Dalai Lama announced his decision in March 2011, just days before the election of the incumbent prime ministerâ€”or Sikyongâ€”Lobsang Sangay, who is standing again.
The 48-year-old Harvard-educated former academic is regarded as the front-runner, having already beaten off three of the four other candidates in a first round of voting last October.
Both he and his one remaining opponent, Penpa Tsering, 49, favour the â€œmiddle wayâ€ approach of the Dalai Lama that advocates seeking greater autonomy for Tibet peacefully.
In all, 88,000 Tibetans in 13 countries from Australia to the United States are registered to cast ballots for a prime minister and the 44-member parliament-in-exile.
Many voters, like Sangay, have lived all their lives in exile and never visited Tibet.
One of the eliminated candidates, Lukar Jam Atsok, spent time as a political prisoner in China and had threatened to make waves with his more aggressive policy of advocating complete independence.
On policy, there is relatively little to choose between Sangay and his remaining opponent, and opinions on the streets of Dharamsala were mixed in the run-up to Sundayâ€™s vote.
Many said they would stick with Sangay. But some who voted for him in 2011 said they had been disappointed by his performance in office.
â€œI will vote for Penpa Tsering, who has decades of experience serving in the Tibetan government in exile and in the Tibetan community. He will have more substance,â€ said Lhadon, a 55-year-old woman who did not give her full name. The results from Sundayâ€™s voting are expected in April.
Tsering was born in India and has served in the Tibetan parliament-in-exile based in Dharamsala for 10 years, where he is currently the speaker.