Beliefnet

DHARMSALA, India (AP)--Most politicians nominated to head their government by four voters out of five probably wouldn't sequester themselves thousands of kilometers (miles) from the seat of power and retreat into meditation. But then Samdhong Rinpoche is no typical politician, and the administration he is likely to lead--the Tibetan government-in-exile--is no average polity. It could change vastly, too, during Samdhong's tenure as Kalon Tripa, or prime minister.

The Buddhist monk is in Bangalore, almost the length of India away from the exile government's headquarters in Dharmsala. Associates say he probably will remain outside the political loop until next month - after the final round of voting Sunday should have confirmed him as the next head of the Cabinet, the executive body of the Dalai Lama's government in exile.

His retreat is a surprising response from a man many expect to bring greater transparency and a new dynamism to the post.

But his absence is unlikely to harm his chances. In the first poll in May--when voters were asked to simply write in their preferred nominee--the results were overwhelming. Samdhong got 81 percent, or 31,444 of the 38,793 votes cast, a record turnout. His nearest rival got 3,732.

Samdhong shouldn't face any serious challenge in the final balloting by registered voters in Tibetan settlements across India, Nepal and Bhutan, and as far afield as the United States, Europe and Australia.

It is the first time the prime minister will be elected directly rather than nominated by the Dalai Lama. The change, like many reforms in Tibet's fledgling democracy, came at the Dalai Lama's initiative.

The Dalai Lama, 66, said he wanted to hand over the everyday running of his administration to the prime minister.

``His Holiness wanted to have a system whereby people at least have someone to lead them. Right now everything is on His Holiness. As long as he's there it's well and good, but the day is bound to happen that he's no more with us,'' said Assistant Election Commissioner Lobsang Tsultrim.

But exactly how much power the Dalai Lama will cede to the prime minister is uncertain.

``His Holiness and the Kalon Tripa would need to sit down and discuss in detail the division of their responsibility,'' said Thubten Samphel, secretary of the Department of Information and International Relations. ``The post of the Kalon Tripa is ... going to be much more critical and much more influential than the present Kalon Tripa.''

One power the Dalai Lama has ceded is the nomination of the Cabinet, which will be subject to approval by the exile parliament, the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies.

Tibetans retain an immense faith in the Dalai Lama's leadership, and some commentators doubt the prime minister will enjoy much real power until he has held office for some time.

``Ultimately there will be a day His Holiness will impose that kind of duty on him. In the coming five-year term I don't think that he will proceed like that,'' says Tseten Norbu, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, the radical arm of the Tibetan freedom movement.

Yet the nomination of Samdhong with such a massive mandate also has symbolic significance. In a community where regional and religious differences usually dictate allegiances, the lama has gained support across the board. He is originally from Kham in eastern Tibet, a region that accounts for relatively little of the refugee population.

``I think the Tibetan people have shown that they are ready for democracy,'' says Norbu. ``The people have shown they are not going to consider any religion, ethnic or regional basis.''

Samdhong, 61, is expected to bring a change of style to the office. Unlike the incumbent, Sonam Topgyal, he has a high profile and is fluent in Hindi and English. He has forged links with the Indian community and served as the Dalai Lama's representative on overseas missions.

Tibetans believe that Samdhong, like the Dalai Lama, is a reincarnated, high-ranking monk. He also has a strong background in government, having been chairman of the parliament and vice chairman of the commission that drafted the government's constitution. He is credited with opening parliament's proceedings to the public and with making the Cabinet accountable to the parliament.

``He believes in democracy, and that in itself is a plus point,'' says Norbu. Yet Samdhong's political ideas sometimes verge on the naive. He is a strong proponent of using satyagraha - the nonviolent agitation advocated by Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi--in the cause of Tibetan freedom. In a pamphlet entitled ``Tibet: A Future Vision,'' he suggested a state in which foreign loans would be banned and the main form of exchange would be barter.

``His vision and his strategy is satyagraha, that is what Gandhiji did and it is very different from what the present government is following,'' says Norbu, ``It will be very interesting to see how he will try to combine the two.''
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