The election of a Harvard law professor as the next Kalon Tripa, or prime minister, of the Tibetan government-in-exile is being hailed as a huge success for the Dalai Lama's goal of democratising the Tibetan exile community. 'It's very interesting that the Dalai Lama has pulled off this success in having an election where the community has chosen the younger, more secular, more modern candidate,' said Robbie Barnett, director of the modern Tibetan studies programme at Columbia University in New York. 'That's a huge achievement for the Dalai Lama's strategy to get Tibetans to develop a lay leadership.' Barnett said that in the past the exile community, which numbers about 145,000, was reluctant to allow the Dalai Lama to step down as political leader, seeing him as the figure who kept the community united. His retirement as the political leader of Tibet will for the first time give the prime minister, who has traditionally focused on administration, greater political clout. The 43-year-old Lobsang Sangay garnered 27,051 votes, 55 per cent of the total, nudging out two other candidates. Barnett said the election turnout was quite good and would have been better had Nepalese officials not blocked Tibetans from voting in the country. The campaign was very vigorous and included active campaigning and questioning of the three candidates. Sangay will visit Dharamsala, the seat of the government-in-exile, for six weeks beginning in May and in mid-August will formally take up his position as prime minister. His monthly salary will be US$400. 'I am happy to give up my life and job in America because the Tibetan people have entrusted their confidence in me,' he said in a telephone interview from New York. 'I'll do my best to fulfil the aspirations of the Tibetan people and to fulfil the mission of the Dalai Lama to have a secular government.' Barnett said the election of young, secular and educated Sangay represented a major change in the tone of politics for Tibet, especially for the exile community. 'The primary difference here is not about who this person is. What is significant is that people voted for him,' Barnett said. 'This means that there really is a major drive by Tibetan exiles to put behind them the more conservative style of politics they had in the past.' Barnett said Sangay would have an opportunity to rebuild the exile administration, to energise exile schools and make a stronger pact with the exile culture, including businesspeople, people in refugee settlements and poorer Tibetans. The new prime minister of the government-in-exile comes from a humble background. His parents fled Tibet in 1959 at the same time as the young Dalai Lama and he was born in a refugee settlement in India. He said the family had just three cows, a dozen chickens and an acre of land. 'They sold one of our cows to send me to a Tibetan refugee school,' he said. 'I spent school vacations gathering wood in the forest and cutting grass for the family's remaining cows. That's how I grew up. I had lentil soup and rice for 10 years.' After graduating from Delhi University, where he earned his law degree, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in 1995 to study at Harvard Law School, where he earned his master's and doctorate. Sangay has promised to stick to the Dalai Lama's 'middle way policy' of seeking to win autonomy for Tibet through negotiations with China. 'As an elected official, I have to implement this policy, because that is the policy of the Tibetan government-in-exile and the stated view of His Holiness the Dalai Lama,' he said. 'I do see a great deal of pragmatism in it.' Sangay said he hoped to discuss Tibet's future with Beijing, saying he had a track record of discussing the issue with Chinese scholars and students abroad. 'My stand is that we are willing to negotiate with the Chinese government anytime and anywhere,' he said. However, he appears to be under no illusions about the difficulty he will face in dealing with Beijing. 'I hope the Chinese government will see this not from their present hardline policy, but more from a moderate and reasonable approach,' he said. 'But unfortunately, we have not yet seen this moderate side of the Chinese government.' It is highly unlikely Beijing will deal with Sangay, as that would be tantamount to recognising the government-in-exile, which it has steadfastly refused to do. He is also suspect in the eyes of Beijing because of his earlier affiliation with the Tibet Youth Congress, which has a stated policy of seeking independence for Tibet. The official Chinese reaction sought to dismiss the election. A headline in the official Global Times, an English-language daily, summed up the official view: 'Dalai's new 'prime minister' illegitimate: official.' The Chinese penchant for referring to the Dalai Lama as 'the Dalai' is seen as an insult. The article went on to say that Sangay was a leader of the Tibetan Youth Congress, which it called a 'hardline organisation under the Dalai Lama clique that openly preaches violence in their search for 'Tibetan independence''. The commentary said the congress was the 'mastermind' behind riots in Tibet in 2008 that it said resulted in 18 deaths. 'Labelling me some kind of terrorist is really unfortunate,' said Sangay, pointing out that similar epithets had also been hurled at the Dalai Lama. He said the Communist Party was threatened by the fact that he was elected by popular vote. 'It seems that what makes them nervous is that I was elected through a democratic mandate,' he said. Exiled Tibetans enjoyed the freedom and the right to elect their own political leaders, Sangay said, while in Tibet there were no elections and a Chinese presence at every level of government. 'In Tibet, Tibetans cannot, and are not allowed to, vote,' he said. 'So I enjoy more credibility and legitimacy than any Chinese party leader in Tibet. 'In contrast, in Tibet the Communist Party doesn't enjoy any legitimacy, politically or morally,' he continued. 'They're nervous about the contrast that's being drawn.' Although Tibetans living in Tibet did not participate in the election, there have been reports that many there celebrated the news, composing songs, lighting yak butter lamps, setting off fireworks and burning incense upon hearing the result of the election. Sangay said his supporters also e-mailed him words of support and sent him ceremonial Tibetan Buddhist scarves. The new prime minister criticised Chinese abuses in Tibet, saying Beijing's policy there prevented China from receiving international respect. 'On the one hand, China wants to be a superpower, but it lacks the moral authority to be a superpower,' he said. 'They will have to earn the respect of the international community, but that can't be bought with foreign exchange reserves or forced through military power.' Some observers have suggested that Sangay, given his affiliation with the Tibet Youth Congress as a youth, may usher in a more radical government-in-exile, despite his promise to stick to the Dalai Lama's 'middle way'. Barnett said Sangay had been pretty outspoken in the past few days by refusing to rule out independence. 'He wants to be seen as forceful and quite strongly spoken, so he will have a different style there,' he said. While negotiating envoys will still be chosen in the name of the Dalai Lama, as Beijing refuses to acknowledge or deal with the government-in-exile, it is believed that candidates will be vetted by the new premier. Another Tibet expert said he believed Sangay wanted to put together his own negotiating team. 'He refuses to say whether he will keep the same people, but I have the feeling that he's looking to make more changes than I was thinking he would,' this person said. 'He's going to try to shake things up.' But Barnett said he did not expect a major shift in policy towards China. 'We'll have to wait and see,' Barnett said. 'I don't think you should anticipate major changes in the relationship with China. 'He's a government official and almost all government officials in exile are more radical in their youth and less so when officials, when they're more tempered by responsibility and obligations,' Barnett said. Asked if Sangay was a closet radical likely to lead the government-in-exile in a new direction, Jamyang Norbu, a prominent commentator on Tibetan issues and a CIA-trained former guerilla who fought against Chinese forces in Tibet, replied: 'Absolutely not! 'He's not radical at all,' Norbu said. 'He's very much an establishment person. He plays by the rules. He goes along with authority and the powers that be.' He said the new prime minister was not actively involved in Tibetan Youth Congress politics, adding that the Chinese information on Dharamsala was sometimes very poor. 'Anything connected to the TYC is bad,' Norbu said. 'But the TYC didn't support him at all in the election. The TYC is calling for independence. They have not been at all supportive. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.' Norbu was worried that Sangay lacked relevant experience and that dealing with the bureaucratic system of the government-in-exile could be a challenge. 'The problem is he has no experience in Tibetan government,' he said. 'He's going there on his own. There are a lot of power structures that have already been set up. It's a real problem.' Barnett agreed. 'This man is an unknown in terms of management expertise and experience,' he said. 'He hasn't had a job in government, hasn't taught in a university or held public office.' Barnett said this was the gamble the exile community was willing to take. 'What's important is the electorate has said it's willing to take that gamble because it's interested in new ideas and a new approach,' he said. In any case, the Tibet experts said, even if Sangay made mistakes he would be surrounded by people who would be watching over him. 'It's ideal because if he doesn't work out, it won't matter because the Dalai Lama is still there,' one Tibet expert said, describing the Tibetan religious leader as a 'safety net'. And in any case, Sangay himself seems to be comforted by the fact that the Dalai Lama will be backing him up. 'His Holiness wants to stay away from politics as much as possible,' Sangay said. 'But on important matters he wants to, and I want him to, give practical advice.' Sangay frequently praised the magnanimity of the Dalai Lama in devolving his political power to elected leaders, calling the decision a 'top-down gift to the Tibetan people'. 'He has shown that he is willing to give up his political authority to elected leaders, which is a true testament to democracy,' Sangay said. 'This is also a model of what Tibet could have become had His Holiness been the leader of Tibet.'