DHARAMSALA (Reuters) - It may be a low-key campaign for 83,000 votes dotted around the globe, but an election of exiled Tibetans may ring in momentous changes for one of the world's regional hot spots.
Three secular candidates are battling to fill a vacuum created by the Dalai Lama's move to relinquish political power after more than five decades as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamsala, a town of temples, hotels and trinket shops.
The March 20 vote for prime minister may prove a landmark in replacing a religious monarchy with a more radical leader claiming democratic legitimacy to speak for Tibetans, dealing a huge symbolic blow to China's claims to rule the region.
But it could also open up fissures between traditional Tibetans and a younger tech-savvy generation about the role of the Dalai Lama. Some fear for the very future of an exiled movement long used to the dominance of their spiritual leader and opposition to his move has already emerged.
"The new leader could be much more of a global figurehead," Samdhong Rinpoche, a lama who became the exiled Tibetan's first directly elected prime minister in 2001, told Reuters.
"That's why this election is so important. But it also brings in many risks."
The Dalai Lama, whose smiling face has jokingly been compared to a laughing Buddha, will remain spiritual leader. He is a celebrity adored by Hollywood stars and the 6 million Tibetans who worship him as a reincarnated leader. But he would step down as head of state and administrative chief.
As the 75-year-old ages, a new leader with increased powers - even if just symbolic ones -- may gain in influence. There are signs the candidates are moving in a more radical direction, in part buoyed by events in Egypt and Tunisia.
All three are younger than the Dalai Lama. And they have to answer to more frustrated and radical young voters, many based in countries like the United States where the Tibetan cause is often seen in a simpler bad-versus-good battle rather than the real politics that many veterans in Dharamsala see.
The two main contenders have hinted they could move beyond the Dalai Lama's "middle way", the policy of negotiating some autonomy from China. A younger generation has criticized it for producing no results despite a 2008 rebellion against Chinese rule in which at least 19 people - possibly hundreds -- were killed.
"The new leader will have to take advantage of changes in the Muslim world, the Jasmine revolution," election favourite Lobsang Sangay told Reuters. "When the opportunity presents itself, one must take advantage. There is a need of flexibility given the international situation and the stalemate with China."
Sangay is typical of the upcoming generation. A Fulbright scholar with a doctorate in law from Harvard, in 2007 he was selected as one of 24 Young Leaders of Asia by the Asia Society, even though he has little government experience.
His main opponent, Tenzin Tethong, has also talked of making the "middle way" more flexible and has even talked of "self determination", a word more often used by young radicals pressing for independence.
TIBETANS FEAR THE FUTURE
The Dalai Lama had long talked of "semi-retirement". But his announcement that he wanted to give up his political authority has sent shock waves among Tibetans living at their exiled base in the foothills of the Himalayas.
"Many Tibetans, especially the elder generation, will insist he stays on," said Tsering Kanyag, a monk who escaped from Tibet 12 years ago, crossing the Himalayas by foot.
Since The Dalai Lama's flight after a failed 1959 uprising, he has emerged as one the world's celebrity leaders. But he is getting older and aides close to him say he can appear exhausted from globe trotting.
That could benefit China, which has ruled Tibet with an iron fist since Communist troops marched in in 1950. Beijing, which regards the Dalai Lama as a dangerous separatist responsible for stirring unrest, denounced his resignation as a "trick".
Tibetans have long feared China will use the issue of the Dalai Lama's succession to split the movement, with one new Lama named by the exiles and one by China after his death. A new Dalai Lama would need decades before he could lead the movement.
There is a precedent. The Panchen Lama, seen as second to the Dalai Lama in importance, was selected by Beijing in 1995 over a boy chosen by the Dalai Lama who has never been seen again, creating a crisis of legitimacy for devout Tibetans.
The Dalai Lama himself hinted Tibetans faced an "overwhelming challenge" if nothing was done.
"It is necessary," he said in a statement to his parliament on Monday, "that we establish a sound system of governance while I remain able and healthy in order that the exile Tibetan administration can become more self-reliant rather than dependent on the Dalai Lama.
A more powerful prime minister combined with the Dalai Lama devolving power may be hugely embarrassing for Beijing.
"It is a symbolic move that will further weaken China's claim to be a voice for the Tibetan people," said Robert Barnett, director of the modern Tibetan studies program at Columbia University in New York.
"But it will strengthen the Dalai Lama's standing as the ideal Buddhist leader who gives up power."
A deeper democracy in the exiled Tibetan movement, which numbers about 150,000 globally, may also see a vent for the frustrations of the youth, many of whom have felt the Dalai Lama was stubbornly supportive of the struggling "middle way" policy.
"It makes a change in policy easier. The majority of Tibetans support the middle way but there might be more vocal calls for independence," said Tenzin Taklha, a senior aide to the Dalai Lama.
But this brave, new world is far from certain.
The new candidates are hardly known within Tibet. They will rule a government with limited revenue, no state or territory and little international recognition. Not being Lamas, they may find it difficult to unite their people. And China has said it will only talk to the Dalai Lama, not a government it does not recognise.
Weaning Tibetans from a four century tradition has sparked opposition, with fears it is too radical for the traditional society. A two-thirds majority is needed in parliament to amend the charter and the prime minister had warned of a constitutional deadlock.
"Outside Tibet we are 100,000 people," said Pema Jungney, a member of parliament. "But in Tibet there are six million. The Tibetan government-in-exile is dependent on the Dalai Lama. Within Tibet they would not accept an exiled government without him."
"We cannot change 369 years of tradition from the outside," he said, referring to the system of the Dalai Lama's roles as spiritual and political leader that dates from 1642.
That opposition may open up negotiations that could see the Dalai Lama stay as the political figurehead but relinquish powers such as signing bills. He is expected to keep his role as negotiator with China to stop talks stalling.
But whatever the opposition, it may just be a matter of time. The Dalai Lama has a record of moving ahead of time, calling for democratic reforms since the 1960s.
"A seed has been sown," said Penpa Tsering, the speaker of the parliament.
(Additional reporting by Abhishek Madhukar; Editing by Paul de Bendern and Robert Birsel)
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