DHARAMSHALA, India (AFP) – Harvard academic Lobsang Sangay was elected head of Tibet's exiled government Wednesday, with the daunting task of assuming the political duties of a global icon, the Dalai Lama.

Sangay, a 43-year-old 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 Dharamshala.

Born and raised in a tea-growing area of northeast India, Sangay has never lived in or visited Tibet and represents a break with the historic dominance of Tibetan politics by religious figures.

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 predecessor.

"I view my election as an affirmation of the far-sighted policies of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and another important step towards the realisation of his vision of a truly democratic Tibetan society," Sangay said in a victory statement.

"I take comfort in the fact that the changes we are going through are happening ... while His Holiness is healthy and available to watch over us," he added.

In an interview with AFP in Dharamshala last month, Sangay had acknowledged that the Dalai Lama was irreplaceable but added that there was a hunger in the Tibetan community to "see the younger generation taking over the leadership".

Sangay attended a special Tibetan refugee high school in Darjeeling and went on to study at Delhi University before receiving a Fulbright Scholarship on which he completed his master's degree at Harvard Law School.

He has been living in the United States since, and is now a senior fellow at the school.

His profile is not unusual among the new generation of exiled Tibetan activists who, while observant Buddhists, see their professional qualifications as a crucial asset for 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.

"I urge every Tibetan and friend of Tibet to join me in our common cause to alleviate the suffering of Tibetans in occupied Tibet and to return His Holiness to his rightful place," he said in his statement Wednesday.

Of the nearly 83,400 exiled Tibetans in India and overseas who were eligible to vote in the election, more than 49,000 cast their ballots.

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.

Largely subordinate to the Dalai Lama in matters of major policy, its 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.