Debates leading up to March 20 elections for the 16th Tibetan Parliament-in-exile kicked off Tuesday in Dharamsala, India.
The election of a prime minister and all 44 members of parliament represents a historic milestone for an estimated 128,000 Tibetans in exile, all of whom are eligible to cast votes.
The debate between incumbent Prime Minister Dr. Lobsang Sangay and Penpa Tsering, speaker of Tibetan parliament-in-exile, comes just days after Dicki Chhoyang, minister of the Department of Information and International Relations, abruptly resigned the cabinet post she’d held since 2011.
While Chhoyang did not provide details about her decision to step down, her resignation spurred speculation that she might support Tsering, the sole opponent of Sangay, whose administration she had served for five years.
A lifelong Tibetan activist, Chhoyang was among seven ministers comprising the first democratically-elected Tibetan cabinet after the Dalai Lama forfeited his political powers.
“With a sad heart, I resigned today as Kalon [Minister] for the Department of Information and International Relations (DIIR) for the Central Tibetan Administration,” she said in a statement issued to numerous news organizations. “My decision was made with careful deliberation, bearing in mind our collective interest and the significant challenged that lie ahead.”
On Sunday, Prime Minister Sangay responded to her departure, saying only that Chhoyang resigned to participate in public debates of the ongoing Tibetan general election, in which government ministers aren’t allowed to participate.
According to Reuters, Tsering chose not to comment on her resignation, allowing only that he didn’t want to “fish in trouble waters.”
“One can always imagine why a minister, just a few months before completing her term, resigns,” said Tsering. “There are obviously other reasons … so let her speak. I don’t want to bring this politics in our campaign. It is for the public to judge.”
Upcoming polls will decide who leads the unicameral body, the highest legislative organ of the Central Tibetan administration, which is based in Dharamsala.
According to electoral rules, ten parliamentarians are elected from each of Tibet’s three traditional provinces — U-Tsang, Do-tod and Do-med — “while the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism and the traditional Bon faith elect two members each.”
Four members are elected by Tibetans in the west: two from Europe, one from North America and one from Canada.
Tibet’s Parliament-in-exile is headed by a Speaker and Deputy Speaker, both of whom are elected by sitting parliamentarians.
China has ruled Tibet with an iron fist since Communist troops took over the region in 1950. Beijing regards the Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in India in 1959, as a dangerous separatist who wants an independent Tibet.
The Dalai Lama has repeatedly refuted those claims and has advocated greater autonomy for Tibet within China through dialogue with Beijing.