DHARAMSHALA, India – Thousands of Tibetans worldwide voted on Sunday for a new political leader who hopes to become a fresh face of their struggle for freedom in China, a cause embodied for decades by the Dalai Lama.
The revered monk, 75, announced 10 days ago that he wanted to retire as political head of his exiled government and hand power to an elected leader who could continue the fight after his death.
Amid anxiety about the change, exiled Tibetans in 13 countries from Australia to the United States cast ballots on Sunday for a new prime minister, known as the Kalon Tripa, and a new exile parliament.
The front-runner for the prime minister's job is 43-year-old Harvard scholar and international law expert Lobsang Sangay, who was born in a tea-growing area of northeast India. He has never visited his homeland.
"His Holiness is devolving powers and we should be more cautious in electing the representatives and the Kalon Tripa," said Tsering Choedup, a political activist in Dharamshala, where the movement is based.
"This time, people feel more responsibility to vote," he said as he waited in line with others to vote at a Buddhist temple.
The exact details of the transfer of power are yet to be worked out -- the parliament in exile still hopes to block the change -- but the Dalai Lama is adamant that the movement must be fully democratic to prepare for the future.
Under his plans, he will remain spiritual head of Tibet and the figurehead of the struggle for autonomy for Tibetans in China, but he will no longer be head of the exile government.
The job is mostly ceremonial -- he signs resolutions, swears in the cabinet and occasionally attends parliament -- but the move is part of the Dalai Lama's plan to hand power to elected representatives.
"Rule by spiritual leaders or by kings, these are now out of date," he told AFP last week during an interview in his home in exile in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas.
Sangay is the clear favourite for Sunday's contest between three secular candidates, having triumphed in a first round of the election last year with nearly 50 percent of the votes.
"People see in me someone who is rooted in tradition but is also modern," he told AFP last Friday.
He voted to applause at a temple in Dharamshala on Sunday morning.
Final results will be known sometime at the end of April. Preliminary figures are expected to emerge in the next few weeks.
The move by the Dalai Lama to relinquish power is seen by observers as a risky but necessary step to prepare for a future without his charismatic leadership, which has kept the cause alive for the last 50 years.
It is unclear, however, whether the new leader will have the power or influence to advance the cause.
Despite 50 years of lobbying, even the Dalai Lama has little to show for his efforts. Beijing continues to brand him a "splittist" and subjects him to virulent attacks in public.
An uprising by Tibetans in 2008 was brutally suppressed.
The victor's legitimacy might also be in question among Tibetans in Tibet who will not take part in the election. Their loyalty remains with the Dalai Lama, who must convince them to accept his transfer of power.
Sangay faces competition from two older candidates, Tenzin Tethong and Tashi Wangdi, who both have a long track record in government in the Tibetan administration in exile in Dharamshala.
The election did not go ahead in Nepal where 20,000 of the estimated 150,000 exiled Tibetans live. Under Chinese pressure, authorities in Kathmandu prevented what they see as an unlawful vote.
"The mood of optimism across the diaspora was marred by the news," said a statement from the International Campaign for Tibet.
The Tibetan exile movement has been based in India since 1959 when the Dalai Lama fled across the Himalayas after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.