dalai lama

(Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama delivers a teaching session inside a Buddhist temple on the outskirts of the northern Indian hill town of Dharamsala March 15, 2011/Mukesh Gupta)

It may be a low-key campaign for 83,000 votes dotted around the globe, but an election of exiled Tibetans may ring in momentous changes for one of the world’s regional hot spots. Three secular candidates are battling to fill a vacuum created by the Dalai Lama’s move to relinquish political power after more than five decades as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamsala, a town of temples, hotels and trinket shops.

The March 20 vote for prime minister may prove a landmark in replacing a religious monarchy with a more radical leader claiming democratic legitimacy to speak for Tibetans, dealing a huge symbolic blow to China’s claims to rule the region. But it could also open up fissures between traditional Tibetans and a younger tech-savvy generation about the role of the Dalai Lama. Some fear for the very future of an exiled movement long used to the dominance of their spiritual leader and opposition to his move has already emerged.

“The new leader could be much more of a global figurehead,” Samdhong Rinpoche, a lama who became the exiled Tibetan’s first directly elected prime minister in 2001, told Reuters. “That’s why this election is so important. But it also brings in many risks.”

The Dalai Lama, whose smiling face has jokingly been compared to a laughing Buddha, will remain spiritual leader. He is a celebrity adored by Hollywood stars and the 6 million Tibetans who worship him as a reincarnated leader. But he would step down as head of state and administrative chief.