Thousands of Tibetans worldwide voted on Sunday for a political leader to keep up their struggle for greater freedom in China and to head their exiled government.
Harvard-educated Lobsang Sangay, current prime minister of the exiled government who is recontesting for the top job, is the front-runner ahead of four other candidates.
But rival candidate Lukar Jam Atsok is looking to make waves, advocating Tibet’s complete independence from China, rather than the exiled government’s more moderate stance of greater autonomy for their homeland.
In Sunday’s preliminary round of voting, 87,000 exiled Tibetans in about a dozen countries from Australia to the United States are registered to cast ballots for a prime minister and for a new exiled 44-member Parliament.
Monks, nuns and families stood in long queues waiting to vote at the main temple in Dharamsala, where the exiled government is based.
Zompa, an 85-year-old grandmother, said she would again vote for Sangay. But student Pho Nya said the younger generation was drawn to Atsok who fled Tibet in 1997 after China released him from jail for political activism.
“He is a learned man and someone who has undergone suffering at the hands of the Chinese and overcame it,” the 23-year-old said.
A final round of voting is scheduled for March next year when the new prime minister and Parliament will be announced.
The election is only the second since the Dalai Lama retired as political head of the exiled government four years ago, handing over power to elected leader Sangay to continue the fight after his death.
The 80-year-old remains the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism and the figurehead of the struggle for autonomy for Tibetans in China.
The Dalai Lama raised concern among his millions of followers last month when he scrapped a tour of the United States for health reasons.
The leader fled Tibet for exile in India in 1959 amid an abortive uprising against China’s rule.
China has widely been seen as waiting for the Dalai Lama’s death, believing that the movement for Tibetan rights would not survive without its charismatic and globally famous leader.
The Dalai Lama, an avowed pacifist, says that he recognises China’s rule over Tibet and is seeking greater freedoms.
China insists that the Nobel Peace Prize winner is nonetheless a “splittist,” and some younger Tibetan activists in exile have advocated a more militant approach.