Dharamsala: A 43-year-old Harvard scholar was elected head of Tibet's government-in-exile on Wednesday, leaving him the daunting task of assuming the political duties of a global icon, the Dalai Lama.
Lobsang Sangay, an international law expert, easily beat the two other candidates for the prime minister's post, securing 55 percent of the vote, Election Commissioner Jamphel Choesang announced in the exiled government's base in the northern Indian hill town of Dharamsala.
Born in a tea-growing area of northeast India, Sangay has never lived in or visited Tibet and represents a break with the past, which has seen older, religious figures dominate the politics of the exiled Tibetan movement.
His election also marks a watershed following the Dalai Lama's announcement last month that he would retire as the Tibetan movement's political leader, transferring his powers to the newly-elected Prime Minister.
Although the Dalai Lama, 75, will retain the more significant role of Tibet's spiritual leader, the transition will make Sangay a far more prominent figure than his predecessors.
"His Holiness is 400-plus years of institution," Sangay said last month in an interview in Dharamsala, where the Tibetan exile community has been based for more than 50 years.
"No one can replace or substitute him. The major challenge for anyone is to build up a reputation and credibility," he said.
The Harvard scholar insists however that there is hunger in the community to "see the younger generation taking over the leadership".
Sangay has made it clear that he fully supports the Dalai Lama's "middle way" formula that seeks "meaningful autonomy" for Tibet under Chinese rule, rather than outright independence.
Of the nearly 83,400 exiled Tibetans in India and overseas who were eligible to vote in the election, more than 49,000 actually cast their ballots, Choesang said.
The Dalai Lama's idea to devolve power reflects concern about how to sustain a struggle for Tibetan rights that the Nobel laureate has single-handedly carried since fleeing his homeland to India in 1959.
The worry is that when the Dalai Lama dies, the Tibetan cause, stripped of its totemic leader, will fade into obscurity. An elected figure is seen as a solution.
But this route is fraught with difficulties.
The government-in-exile is not recognised by any foreign governments, China refuses to acknowledge it, and its legitimacy in the eyes of Tibetans in Tibet might be questioned without the Dalai Lama's patronage.
The government-in-exile has a stated mandate to rehabilitate Tibetan refugees and restore "freedom and happiness" in Tibet.
Largely subordinate to the Dalai Lama in matters of major policy, the role's main focus is on the welfare of the Tibetan exiled community in India, running schools, health services and cultural activities.
"Any important decisions would still have to be discussed with the Dalai Lama," said Barry Sautman, a Tibet expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
"The problem for any Prime Minister is that, compared to the Dalai Lama, he enjoys little name recognition outside specialised Tibetan circles, and that will be a difficult dynamic to shift," Sautman said.
First Published: Wednesday, April 27, 2011, 13:32