Tibetans around the world have voted in the first round of elections to choose a new government-in-exile.
Sunday's polls, with more than 80,000 registered voters worldwide, will decide which parliamentary and prime ministerial candidates will run in the final polls to be held on March 20.
Hundreds of Tibetans, including monks and nuns, lined up behind voting kiosks in the north Indian hill town of Dharamsala, where the exiled government is based. One by one, they wrote the names of their favourite candidates on pieces of paper and slid them into green ballot boxes.
Most of the voters based in India, Nepal, and Bhutan cast their ballots to elect the Sikyong, or leader, and the 44-member parliament.
It is just the second time Tibetans have voted since the Dalai Lama stepped down as head of the government-in-exile in 2011 to focus on his role as Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader.
|Hundreds of Tibetans, including monks and nuns, lined up behind voting kiosks in the north Indian hill town of Dharamsala [Ashwini Bhatia/AP]
The Tibetan community - comprising about 130,000 people spread across communities from Minnesota and Norway to Nepal and Taiwan - stepped onto the international stage and consciousness after the Dalai Lama fled Chinese occupation in 1959 and settled in exile in India.
Rallying behind a charismatic leader and the single cause of freeing Tibet, the community proved a major irritant to Beijing. But exiled Tibetans have struggled in recent years to maintain a cohesive political voice while seeing China's diplomatic and economic clout grow.
In a telephone interview with the AP, incumbent Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay was frank in acknowledging that little progress has been made.
The last round of talks between envoys of China and the Dalai Lama was in 2010, 25 years after the Dalai Lama proposed Tibetans give up on independence and instead seek a "middle way" - regional autonomy under China through peaceful dialogue.
"As far as talks with China are concerned, there is a status quo," said Sangay, who is running for re-election.
One candidate for prime minister has riled the debate by rejecting the Dalai Lama's middle way policy and instead arguing that the community should be demanding full independence for Tibet.
"It's fashionable to talk about the middle way, but it kills the passion to act," said Lukar Jam, a candidate. A writer and political activist, Jam also suggested that China could not be trusted to honour Tibetan autonomy, saying Beijing "makes regular changes in its constitution where minority rights are concerned".
Because it is considered unwise and impolite to question the Dalai Lama's wisdom, Jam has earned the nickname: the "anti-Dalai Lama". But he said his critics were missing the point.
"I have separated the spiritual and political Dalai Lama and criticise only his political policies," he said.
The results from Sunday's vote are expected in December.