DHARMSALA, India — A Harvard legal scholar has been elected the next prime minister of Tibet's government-in-exile, officials announced Wednesday, paving the way for new leadership in the Tibetan community as the Dalai Lama gives up political power.
Lobsang Sangay, 43, a lawyer and scholar who has spent years studying international law and conflict resolution, won with 55 percent of the votes cast by tens of thousands of Tibetans around the world, chief election commissioner Jamphel Choesang said in the north Indian town of Dharmsala, where the exile government is based.
He praised the Dalai Lama on Wednesday for handing over political power and vowed to continue Tibet's struggle for autonomy.
"I hope, one, to keep the Tibet issue alive and so that the sacrifices made inside Tibet and the ongoing suffering of Tibetans will not be forgotten by the world," he said by phone from Washington.
While the government-in-exile has existed for decades, it has long been seen as a powerless reflection of the wishes of the Dalai Lama, the exiled 75-year-old Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader worshipped as a near-deity by many followers.
Earlier this year, though, the Dalai Lama announced he would give up his political role, saying it was time for elected leadership in the Tibetan community. The political change, yet to be written into the community's constitution, reverses centuries of tradition in which the Dalai Lama was also the region's political leader.
While it remains unclear if an elected leader will be able to step out of the Dalai Lama's immense shadow, the shift is widely seen as a way to prepare for the spiritual leader's eventual death, and to show Beijing that exile leaders will continue to wield influence.
The message "is that the Tibetan struggle is clearly a Tibetan people's struggle," government spokesman Thupten Samphel said after Sangay's victory was announced. "This is a wake-up call for China."
In many ways, Sangay's election is really about the Dalai Lama's age and worries over his succession. A man of immense personal charisma, whose followers range from the Tibetan plateau to the mansions of Hollywood, he is seen in many world capitals as the personification of the Tibetan struggle. His death, many Tibetans believe, could leave the community adrift.
While the Dalai Lama is believed to be in fairly good health, he openly admits that his death has become a major political concern.
Many observers believe his death will lead to rival Dalai Lamas – one appointed by Beijing, which rules Tibet, and one by senior monks loyal to the current Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace laureate, has also suggested that negotiations with Beijing – which has vilified him for his vocal resistance to China's rule over Tibet – would be less complicated under another Tibetan figurehead.
In Dharmsala, voters were delighted with the news Wednesday.
"The Dalai Lama wants young Tibetans to take on leadership," said 28-year-old Lobsang Jinpa, who works in a photo lab. "Even if (Sangay) makes mistakes, the Dalai Lama is there to guide him."
Internet cafe clerk Dawa Tsering, 28, said Sangay would "lead us not by tradition but by modern education. He is also a lawyer, so his experience and education will be a good weapon to fight for the Tibetan cause."
Sangay, a senior fellow at Harvard Law School who lives in Medford, Massachusetts, said he plans to move to Dharmsala and expects to take office in mid-August, when the five-year term of the current prime minister ends.
He has said the Dalai Lama's decision to abdicate political power means that Tibetans will be able to fight China on two fronts.
"On one side we'll have the Dalai Lama, who has historical legitimacy and global popularity," he told The Associated Press in March. "And on the second, we have a democratic government functioning in exile. We are showing China that if Tibetans are allowed to choose, they are capable of forming a stable democratic government."
Successive rounds of talks between Chinese officials and representatives of the Dalai Lama have made no apparent progress toward bringing the sides together. Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama of seeking to separate Tibet from China, despite his claims to be working only for more autonomy under Chinese rule.
China occupied Tibet in 1950 and claims the region has been part of its territory for centuries, although many Tibetans, who are linguistically and ethnically distinct, say they were effectively independent.
Tibetans fear they are being marginalized economically by Chinese and that their religion is under threat from restrictions imposed by the authoritarian government.
The outgoing prime minister, a Buddhist monk, welcomed the new leadership.
"It's a significant change from old to new, from a monk to a lay person, from older to young, and from traditional to modern," said Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche.
The Dalai Lama is still revered by most Tibetans as their king. He is the 14th person to hold the title in a tradition stretching back 500 years, with each Dalai Lama chosen as a child by senior monks through a series of mystical signs. Each is believed to be the reincarnation of his predecessor.
Associated Press writers Tim Sullivan in New Delhi and Denise Lavoie in Boston contributed to this report.